As Michael Slager sentencing nears, demise of North Charleston police review deals blow to reform effort
With former North Charleston officer Michael Slager on the verge of learning how much longer he will stay behind bars for shooting Walter Scott, authorities have scuttled a broader push for police reform ignited by the killing.
The U.S. Department of Justice late Friday abandoned an assessment program meant to identity faults in police procedures, recommend changes and monitor progress. Federal officials are expected to walk away from months spent since spring 2016 interviewing residents, observing police officers and analyzing agency policies.
Instead, the Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, office said it plans to refocus its efforts on giving police agencies the help they want in fighting violent crime.
“We are here to provide assistance and support,” COPS spokeswoman Shannon Long told The Post and Courier, “not wide-ranging assessments and progress reports.”
Its new direction aligns the unit with ideals stressed by President Donald Trump’s administration and veers from the sort of scrutiny that North Charleston city officials signed up for when they answered community calls for reform in the wake of Scott’s April 2015 shooting death. Emerging information in Slager’s criminal prosecution also might indicate a shift from the sort of prison sentence some advocates envisioned when they saw a bystander’s video of the officer firing eight times as the 50-year-old black man ran away — a scene that brought national scrutiny to the North Charleston Police Department.
A national advocacy group and local reformers said Friday’s development could dismantle the push for change. It also gave credence to the skepticism that community members have expressed since officials announced the effort last year; they had voiced such concerns as late as a day before the announcement.
On Thursday afternoon, a spokesman for Mayor Keith Summey said the mayor had not heard anything about the program’s fate “at this time.” But on Friday morning, Summey and federal officials discussed the “updated approach,” spokesman Ryan Johnson later explained in an email to members of a new police advisory commission.
“We are pleased to report that while certain details of DOJ’s process may change,” Johnson wrote, “the city’s access to DOJ’s resources, and the commitment for DOJ and the city to continue working together, are not changing.”
Some advocates still look to an approaching hearing for Slager as the next reform milestone. But that could tilt in Slager’s favor.
A presentencing investigation done in the four months since Slager pleaded guilty to a civil rights violation appears to initially support his argument for less prison time than federal prosecutors are seeking. As evidence of that view, the prosecutors objected to a draft of the report, while Slager’s attorneys did not, said multiple sources with knowledge of the process.
The document is expected to be finalized in the coming weeks and followed by a sentencing proceeding, possibly in October, attorneys said. It has not been made public.
“Our theory of the case has always been different from the government’s, and we feel confident that third-party proof is consistent with our view of the facts,” Charleston defense lawyer Andy Savage said. “We are hopeful.”
While distancing themselves from Slager, North Charleston officials have made some strides to appease larger concerns.
The city formed the advisory commission of residents to help improve community relations. Its members recently started pushing for police supervisors to wear cameras after a lieutenant fatally shot a robbery suspect during a June confrontation that was not caught on video.
But the panel also shared apprehension over the uncertain fate of the COPS review.
“It would be unfair and unfortunate for the federal government to gather information from our residents and provide nothing in return,” the members wrote to Summey last month.
The office, whose inquiry began in May 2016 at Summey’s request, had planned to recommend policy improvements. City officials could have chosen to adopt or ignore the suggestions.
But Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a sweeping analysis of Justice Department programs to ensure they line up with law-and-order principles. For the COPS Collaborative Reform Initiative, that ended with the “significant changes” announced Friday, the agency said. The unit’s efforts should instead go to battling violent crime, Sessions said in a statement.
“This is a course correction,” he said, “to ensure that resources go to agencies that require assistance rather than expensive wide-ranging investigative assessments.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the New York-based NAACP Legal Defense Fund civil rights group, said Sessions was “deliberately dismantling the building blocks needed for comprehensive policing reform” in places like North Charleston.
“His actions do not help police,” she said. “Sessions has removed a critical tool and desperately needed support from local police departments seeking to build and strengthen their relationship with the communities they serve.”
Daniel O’Neal, vice chairman of the police advisory commission, said he was “extremely disappointed” that the Justice Department wouldn’t release the most important part of its review.
“I was counting on those recommendations to guide us in our efforts to give meaningful advice to the Police Department to improve relations with the North Charleston community,” he said. “It is very unfortunate that our citizens will now not be able to learn the results of that assessment in a report that had been promised to them.”
Dot Scott, a commission member and president of the Charleston NAACP chapter, said it’s frustrating that great energy was put into the COPS effort with nothing to show for it.
“Now,” she said, “we’re sitting here twiddling our thumbs and not moving the ball forward in the right direction.”
‘Close this chapter’
A resolution to Slager’s criminal case also is seen by some as an important step in moving on.
After the state’s murder trial ended with a hung jury last year, the 35-year-old Slager pleaded guilty in May in federal court to violating rights under the color of law.
Slager pulled over Walter Scott’s car for a broken brake light, but Scott ran. They fought, and Slager said Scott grabbed his Taser. But the device fell, and Scott started running. Slager shot him five times.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike assumed some risk when they agreed to the plea deal, which prescribed no minimum sentence and up to life in prison.
To decide the penalty, U.S. District Judge David Norton must determine Slager’s underlying crime by choosing from two likely options: voluntary manslaughter or second-degree murder. Which one Norton picks will be key to the length of Slager’s punishment.
Under sentencing guidelines, manslaughter could bring about 10 years in prison, while murder might carry 20. Time could be added if the judge decides that Slager misled investigators into thinking that Scott was coming at him when he fired, but he also would get credit for accepting responsibility for a crime.
A favorable presentencing report for Slager, though, could recommend a sentence on the low end of that range. And it could go even lower after that. Norton could consider other factors that would lessen the term, such as whether Scott’s conduct contributed to the deadly encounter.
“What (Slager) did has an explanation,” Savage said, “but not an excuse.”
A Scott family attorney, Justin Bamberg of Orangeburg, said no prison sentence would lessen the family’s pain.
“Every birthday will be painful, every Christmas,” Bamberg said. “But the family is eager to close this chapter and close the wound so they can finally heal.”
Broader change is also part of that process, the family has said. And Monique Dixon, deputy policy director at the Legal Defense Fund, said she hoped that an open-records request for the Justice Department’s assessment of North Charleston police would help.
“This is something the community wants to know,” she said. “The policing problem has not gone away.”