As he waited for his child’s school bus last week, Keith Lamont Scott was ordered out of his SUV by Charlotte, North Carolina police. He complied and was shot and killed within seconds.
Why Black men run from police
On the day Scott was killed, the highest court in Massachusetts found that African American men were peculiarly justified in fleeing police.
A national map of police killings since Ferguson suggests the same is true around the country, except they’re concentrated in places like Charlotte with high numbers of African Americans.
In reporting Scott’s killing, Charlotte police initially said a plainclothes squad on stakeout had observed him with a handgun both inside and outside his vehicle. But North Carolina is an open-carry state, so there was no crime in that.
Police added that they also observed him rolling a marijuana cigarette — a blunt — and that the combination of illicit drugs and a firearm created public safety issues.
So they abandoned their stakeout to don body armor. They then rolled up on Scott’s SUV, guns drawn, commanding him to drop his weapon.
Killing Keith Lamont Scott
Black, male, 43, and more familiar with police takedowns than anyone wants to be, Keith Lamont Scott was in no hurry to exit his SUV. He’d likely heard the day’s news that Tulsa, Oklahoma police had shot and killed 40-year-old Terence Crutcher four days earlier for approaching the door of his own van.
Scott knew his survival depended on moving carefully and wisely to comply with police commands.
What was the most prudent way to comply with police directives in that moment?
If police discovered a gun at Scott’s ankle while handcuffing him, he would likely be shot. If he tried to remove the gun from its holster while inside his vehicle, he’d likely be shot.
Prudence dictated that he raise his pant leg at the thigh to display the holstered weapon at his ankle. So that’s what he did.
Then with empty hands at his sides and the holstered gun in plain view, he slowly backed away from the car.
And he was shot four times by an officer who could not reasonably have perceived a threat to anyone in that moment.
Smearing Keith Lamont Scott
Soon thereafter, police released a photo showing what appeared to be a gun at Scott’s feet as he lay dying on the pavement.
And to support the police narrative, they offered indifferent, pacifying statements devoid of clarity, like this one:
— New Day (@NewDay) September 22, 2016
Until Mrs. Scott released her cellphone video — to the media, not the police.
But in Rakeyia Scott’s heartrending video of her husband’s destruction, there was no gun at his feet in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.
Speculation erupted as to whether police had planted the gun, until closer inspection of her video showed an officer in a red shirt guarding a gun between his feet.
Still, something in the milk wasn’t clean. The gun had moved.
And the police storyline was beginning to look fragile, the statements too parsed. The citizens of Charlotte wanted to know how this man’s happy and peaceful Tuesday afternoon was made to end so disastrously.
With thousands of protesters in the streets, police were forced to release evidence that would justify the shooting.
They released photos of the gun, an ankle holster and the butt of a blunt. They said Scott’s fingerprints, DNA and blood were found on the gun.
Chief Kerr Putney continued to maintain that “a gun had been recovered at the scene” but offered no details as to where. And he said Scott had “made some imminent threat” to police, though he wouldn’t specify how.
But as he now told the media, neither body cam footage nor dash cam footage would prove Scott had threatened police, or even held a gun, as they’d suggested earlier.
“Suicide by cop” at the school bus drop-off
As police approached Scott’s prone position after the shooting, body cam footage showed no gun on the ground where the red-shirted officer would later stand guard.
In fact, the path he took toward Scott led directly through the spot he would later guard.
How did the gun get there?
We really must have an answer to that question if we back up a few frames.
Or step forward a few frames.
To be sure, there is no gun on the ground.
But more important, the best view we have of the gun shows it’s still in Scott’s ankle holster. Look.
We can figure out the rest for ourselves, right?
When I listen to the body cam footage at this point, just as the red-shirted officer kneels at Scott’s right foot, I hear the sound of metal scraping asphalt.
And then lo and behold, that officer finds an object on the ground behind him worthy of guarding between his feet.
I could be completely wrong here. It wouldn’t be the first or last time. But what I see in this footage is manipulation of the crime scene to concoct a threat from Scott that never existed.
Although perplexing, what’s most disturbing here isn’t the lawlessness of the shooting itself. We can perhaps understand (though not forgive) the error that caused Scott’s death. The officer who fired his weapon based the decision on what he didn’t know, rather than on what he knew.
What’s most disturbing here is the instinctive, literally thoughtless effort to justify the shooting by tampering with evidence while on camera. I find it difficult to understand how a police officer could act to vindicate his partner’s unlawful homicide so quickly, so blithely, so disdainful of Scott’s person or rights.
It’s almost like this happened every day.
Systemic injustices matter
Today, none of this should concern Keith Lamont Scott’s wife of 20 years or their seven children or the many others who loved him. They are rightly focused on laying him to rest.
But for the rest of his fellow citizens — all of us — the cover-up is worse than the crime.
State agents on our streets with badges and guns can be one of two things. They are either civilian police chartered to serve and protect a free people. Or they’re an occupying force placed by a totalitarian government to maintain an unjust social order.
The difference is in the official response to government agents’ criminal acts.
We’ve seen that official response over and over and over again throughout the country. “Our” police have come to expect impunity for the government taking of human life, no matter the circumstances.
But Charlotte has a history of prosecuting police officers when their actions are called into question. The people of Charlotte, some of whom I’ve known for decades, have a capacity and a willingness to hold their officials accountable.
Should our expectations for Charlotte be higher than, say, Ferguson or Baltimore? We can hope so.
We focus here at Burlington Avenue on access to civil justice for self-represented litigants. But the killing of Keith Lamont Scott has reminded me how little that distinction matters.
When police can violate the rights of citizens with such impunity, what expectation of justice can pro se litigants reasonably hold?
We’ve seen for ourselves and hear stories each day of civil court judges who do the most atrocious things without a trace of shame.
It’s important for us as pro se litigants to recognize that we’re trying to assert our rights in the same judicial system that fails to hold police accountable for slaughtering people in the streets. The judge deciding your debt collection or foreclosure case may have just sentenced someone to life in prison for a $5 bag of meth.
We must do better as a nation. But until then, those of us who represent ourselves in court must set our expectations properly.
We are not dealing with a system designed to provide justice.