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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

South Carolina video forces us to confront the truth

Warning: graphic video. A white South Carolina police

Warning: graphic video. A white South Carolina police officer was charged with murder Tuesday, April 8, 2015, hours after law enforcement officials viewed a dramatic video that appears to show him shooting a fleeing black man several times in the back. (Credit: AP) Credit: AP

I don't like making generalizations off one incident. Nor, as a rule, do I look for patterns in a single observation.

Then there's North Charleston, South Carolina.

The cellphone video of a white police officer repeatedly shooting an unarmed black man in the back as he tries to run away is horrifying. And it butts up squarely against that inclination to not want to make too much of one event -- in the way the episode is captured, in the way it echoes what black people have said for years about how they are treated by police, in the way it debunks the police officer's report that he feared for his life, the same thing so many other police reports have said.

It follows other incidents that garnered national attention, regrettable episodes dismissed because the victim did not have his hands up or brandished a toy gun or resisted arrest.

This one can't be dismissed.

Even those of us who have criticized racially motivated policing -- not all police or even most police -- found the video a piece of blunt force trauma, an affirmation you never wanted to actually see.

Now it's rippling across the country, and ripping the scab off the deep dissatisfaction with policing felt by the black community in North Charleston. The outcry echoed complaints about mostly white police forces in mostly minority communities that arose elsewhere after similar high-profile incidents.

These are practices locals know well, but ones the rest of us now are forced to confront by the weight of that video.

In the context of the video, do we have a different take on the fact that in North Charleston -- 47 percent black and 42 percent white with a police force 80 percent white -- a review of traffic stops that did not result in an arrest or a ticket showed blacks were stopped twice as often?

In the context of the video, do we have a different understanding of reports that black residents in North Charleston have been arrested and charged with having bicycles that lacked horns?

What does the video say about police officers not attending to the mortal wounds of Walter Scott, a discomfiting reminder of Eric Garner's fate in Staten Island?

How does it fit into the past year in South Carolina, where a 19-year-old black man was killed in a struggle with a Charleston police officer that began when the officer assumed the teen was planning to commit a crime because he was wearing a hoodie in 85-degree heat? Or in Columbia, where a state trooper stopped a black man as he got out of his car at a convenience store, asked the man for his license and, when the man reached into the car to get it, began screaming at him to get out of the car and started firing, wounding him?

Can we understand better now the simmering rage that comes from slights piling on day after day, taking their demeaning toll? Can we understand better the occasional cathartic explosion?

And can we appreciate more fully the role of video in trying to solve this national problem?

There was none in Charleston; the officer was cleared. A dashboard camera captured the Columbia incident; the officer awaits trial. In North Charleston, Officer Michael Slager was fired and charged with murder, thanks to the video. But we also had video of Garner's death, and a grand jury refused to indict. This issue is not easy.

Still, we need body cameras on all police officers. The good ones, especially, should want that. Cameras exonerate more often than they indict. But we must indict when appropriate.

And we must no longer dismiss a problem the North Charleston video shows us is all too real.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.


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