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Will America Now Challenge the Standard Police Narrative?

What started out as a routine traffic stop quickly escalated into the death of Walter Scott. The city of North Charleston, S.C., was all too willing to accept the officer’s version of events, even though the physical evidence clearly showed that the officer had fired eight shots, with four of the eight hitting Scott in the back.

Far too often the police come up with the same narrative: I felt threatened, I felt afraid, the victim struggled with me, he reached for my gun. This is the same old story from officers who shoot unarmed black men. If not for the video, the officer would have been believed and his story would never have been questioned by the justice system or city officials.

I’ve represented dozens of families of unarmed people of color who have been killed by police officers. And if I had a dollar for every time the reason given by the police was that “they reached for my weapon” or “they attacked me and I felt in fear for my life,” I wouldn’t have enough room in my pockets. What’s sad is how often the police narrative is accepted, with no one but the family raising questions. The death of an unarmed individual is swept under the rug. Walter Scott’s death was well on the way to being swept under the rug–but for the video. Therein lies the problem.

This video was shocking to much of America, but for many of us it was a scene we have experienced so many times in our communities that we weren’t shocked at all. When I saw it, I imagined how many times evidence has been planted, how many times untrue stories have been given as official statements, to help justify the killing of innocent people of color. “Without the video … it would be difficult for us to ascertain exactly what did occur,” the mayor of North Charleston, Keith Summey, said.

But is that really true? I do not agree that it would be difficult. An unarmed black man is shot multiple times from behind while he is fleeing from an officer? That does not point to justified use of deadly force.

If this video shocked you, how about the video of the beating of Floyd Dent in Inkster, Mich., or the video of the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland? What about the video of the shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Wash., and the video of the beating of Alesia Thomas in Los Angeles, both of whom later died?

Why are we still automatically accepting the police narrative? How many shocking videos of police misconduct do we need to show you, America, before you quit accepting the narrative?

North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers, referring to his officers, said, “One does not throw a blanket across the many.” I agree with this statement. It should also apply to black men and all people of color.

There is a blanket of distrust, disrespect and indifference that has been thrown across black men in America. And it is resulting in too many deaths at the hands of armed police officers who claim they are afraid.

Crump is an attorney who represents the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice


Police Brutality Is Inexcusable–and Rare

The shooting in North Charleston, S.C., is an enormous tragedy. The horrific video that is now being seen around the world will do a great deal to hurt the image of police officers and police departments.

Are our police departments brutal, racist and out of control? By every objective measure they are not. When we have incidents like the Brown case in Ferguson and the Garner case in New York, the media paints with a broad brush, as if these were the norm. That is not the case. Only 1% of encounters between police and citizens result in any use of force at all. Every year hundreds of thousands of police officers put their uniforms on and have millions of interactions with the public. In 9 out of 10 cases, citizens are happy with the interaction and in 99 out of 100, no force is used. Police brutality and misconduct are inexcusable. They are also relatively rare. Police officers are human beings–they make mistakes and sometimes even commit criminal acts. When that happens they should be held accountable, and they are.

Police officers have seconds to decide whether to use their firearms in any given violent confrontation. The general rule is that it must be in protection of your own life or the life of another. Those seconds, and the training and judgment of the individual police officer, change everyone’s lives forever. Having been involved in a shooting early in my career, I remember to this day how quickly it all developed and how I reacted instinctively based on my training. If an officer hesitates too long, he could indeed join the 126 who lost their lives in the line of duty last year.

Our citizens gain nothing from demoralized police forces that believe they do not have public support. Demoralized forces will not be as effective as they can be, and that would have a tremendously negative impact on public safety. Effective police departments rely on the public and the community every day. It must not be “us vs. them” but officers and civilians working together to protect law-abiding citizens.

Policing is a noble profession. Men and women put their lives on the line every day. When one of them commits a crime, or is racist or brutal, swift and appropriate punishment should be carried out. But to ascribe these traits to the majority of police officers is wrong and untrue.

Safir was the commissioner of the New York City Police Department from 1996 to 2000


What Photography Can’t Prove

My son called me Tuesday night to tell me about “a disgusting video.” I watched it, appalled. But what to make of it? I can report what I have seen–the cold-blooded murder of a black man. But the video is so much more. It is simultaneously a video of a murder and the cover-up of a murder. We are not just treated to eight shots being fired toward the suspect’s back, but also to the police officer’s apparent failure to offer any kind of medical assistance.

So what to make of it? Photography doesn’t offer proof of anything. It merely supplies additional evidence, which otherwise might not be available. The evidence here is crucial because it is in conflict with the police officer’s own story. We wouldn’t know much without the video. And we wouldn’t have the video save for the courageous observers with a cell phone who possibly risked their lives in filming the incident.

Every time there is a police killing of an unarmed black man that goes unpunished, racism is rewarded. Simple as that. The camera vs. the police officer’s account gives us a powerful story. But what are we as a society going to do with it? It’s not a problem that can be magically fixed with cameras. Cameras can offer evidence, but they can’t tell us what to do with that evidence. Here, we have to decide what to do about it. North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey put it this way: “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And if you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision.” When you’re wrong, you’re wrong? Bad decision? No, not a bad decision. Racism and murder, and we should face up to that.

Morris is a writer and an Academy Award–winning filmmaker


Nothing Less Than an Assassination

Another day, another black man murdered by police.

The problem is that we’re not all on the same page about what we’re outraged over and what changes we want to take place. Police critics will claim this is another example of systemic police racism. Police defenders will claim that this was just one bad apple. We will hear the same calls for more oversight, the same protests that civilians are interfering in matters they couldn’t possibly understand.

African Americans feel like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, forced to watch the same news story playing over and over on some hellish loop: “Unarmed Black Man Killed by Police.” We scream, we try to turn away, but we can’t. There’s always another prone body on the screen.

Walter Scott’s killing should inspire less debate than other recent incidents because of the video. Watching the officer shoot an unarmed, nonthreatening man eight times makes it difficult to see this as anything less than an assassination. It sheds no new light. It just adds another body to the body count.

But Walter Scott does not have to be just another tragic name. It is up to us to not let his death be trivialized. If watching this video doesn’t convince holdouts that racism exists, nothing will. Does anyone really think the officer would have shot Scott if he were white? Racism deniers are like climate-change deniers, letting their hopes blind them to the harsh reality of facts and statistics and blood.

Scott’s death illustrates the need to push harder for the police reforms that are already in the works: more training, more intense oversight by civilians, body cameras and a zero-tolerance policy toward police officers who let their personal biases influence their actions. We need to be as relentless as the racism we’re fighting.

Abdul-Jabbar, a TIME columnist, is a six-time NBA champion

This appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of TIME.

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