Legal expert: Officer shooting not justified

CHARLESTON, SC (WIS) - The video of a North Charleston police officer shooting a man is hard for some to watch and from a legal aspect it could be damning for the officer involved.

At about 9:30 a.m. April 4, Officer Michael Slager shot and killed unarmed Walter Scott, after Scott ran away from Slager to avoid being arrested on an outstanding warrant.

Defense attorney and former U.S. attorney Pete Strom represented an officer in a similar situation that was charged with murder for a shooting that occurred during a traffic stop decades ago. That man was acquitted, but Strom says the circumstances in this case point to a very different possible outcome.

According to the Supreme Court, there are scenarios where lethal force is justified, even if a suspect is running away. That would include situations where the suspect being chased represents a serious threat to the officer or others.

Strom says the facts suggest Scott was unarmed and posed no immediate threat to anybody after being pulled over for a broken tail light. For the attorney, therein lies the problem.

It's already rare for officers to be indicted for murder, but when they are, Strom says it's usually in a "shoot, don't shoot scenario." That's when the officer believes the suspect has a weapon and is about to fire.

However, in this case, given the suspect was retreating while eight shots were fired and the fact other officers were in the area means they could've detained Scott instead of using deadly force. Strom said this makes for a difficult defense.

"I'm a pretty good lawyer, and I like to mix it up, but I cannot tell you how I would defend this," Strom said. "From what I saw on the video and what I know about the facts, this guy wasn't a threat to others. He wasn't armed. He was running away. I just don't see where that officer has much of a defense in this case."

Strom applauds Charleston County Solicitor Scarlett Wilson for quickly authorizing the murder warrant, instead of delaying the process by involving a grand jury, which is similar to how things were handled in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., last year.

Twenty-one people were killed by law enforcement in the state since last year, according to the State Law Enforcement Division. That same data shows that one member of law enforcement was killed by a suspect.

There have been 53 officer-involved shooting since 2014 and many of those shootings took place during traffic stops, according to SLED. USC assistant law professor and former Tallahassee Police officer Seth Stoughton says this particular shooting in North Charleston is troubling because Officer Michael Slager appears to walk away from Walter Scott after shooting him and handcuffing him. It also appears Slager drops a Taser next to Scott and walks away.

"So securing the weapon makes sense, but dropping it next to Mr. Scott's body is a very odd way of securing it though," Stoughton said. "It might be to keep it closer to the officer, but the obvious implication I think that many people are jumping to is that he was planting evidence to make it look like it was in Mr. Scott's hand."

Stoughton said officers are trained to secure the scene and render aid, and he didn't see anything in the video that would justify "deadly force."

A trend that Stoughton has observed towards more aggressive policing across the country may have played a part as overall there is less training devoted to non-lethal, de-escalation tactics.

"If, for example, this officer was more physically comfortable with the idea of running after, tackling and fighting someone because he had been well-trained in hand-to-hand combative than maybe we would see officers resort to higher levels of force less often," Stoughton said. "If an officer is comfortable using his hands or a baton to control the situation then he doesn't feel the need to reach for the firearm as we've seen in some number of situations."

On average, Stoughton said, most police training academies spend roughly 163 hours teaching officers how to use deadly force. Yet only eight hours on average of de-escalation training or resolution skills are taught.

There are no nationwide numbers about how many people die in officer-involved shootings, but according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, roughly 51 officers are criminally killed in the line of duty every year.

Copyright 2015 WIS. All rights reserved.