Local law enforcement has taken steps to improve relations with minority communities and increase training after a spate of deadly shootings between police officers and black men this past summer.
But a mistrial last week in the case of a South Carolina patrolman charged with murdering an unarmed black man has left some in the African-American community wondering whether justice can be served in even the most egregious cases of misuse of deadly force.
The video was unambiguous: A white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black man in the back as the man ran away.
But the jury was unable to agree on a verdict of murder or manslaughter, with a lone holdout forcing the mistrial.
“I was really surprised,” said Kenya Hunter, a student at Brenau University who is active in the Black Student Association. “I thought it was a really straight-forward case.”
Unlike other cases in which white officers had killed unarmed black men, the circumstances in the Walter Scott case seemed cut-and-dried.
Scott, 50, was killed in April 2015 after he was shot five times. A barber on his way to work recorded the slaying on his cellphone.
Prosecutors quickly indicted Officer Michael Slager. They said they plan to retry him after the mistrial. Slager is also scheduled to be tried separately next year on federal charges that he violated Scott’s civil rights.
North Charleston city officials approved a $6.5 million civil settlement for Scott’s family earlier this year. Slager remains free on bail.
“If there’s a new jury, I think that there’s hope for justice,” Hunter said.
South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley voiced her support for Scott’s family, saying in a statement that justice “is not always immediate, but we must all have faith that it will be served.”
Though progress in improving relations with law enforcement and reforming criminal justice practices has been slow to develop nationally, Hunter said, she has been encouraged by the support Brenau administrators have given her and other campus activists.
“One thing we struggle with is how we can resist effectively,” Hunter said. “We’ve made clear we don’t tolerate oppression of any sort.”
Hunter said she would like to see a citizen review board established in local communities to oversee deadly encounters between police and the public.
“I don’t think police should police themselves,” she said.
As the cycle of police shootings spread through the country over the last few years, the Gainesville Police Department and Hall County Sheriff’s Office took note.
Following the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas this past summer, for example, clergy members joined officials from the Gainesville City Council, Gainesville Police Department and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office for a public forum to address how to improve relations between law enforcement and the local community.
And learning from communities across the nation that have been affected by similar incidents is critical to keeping a lid on social unrest in Gainesville and Hall County.
“As our local law enforcement agencies work to crystallize their community relations visions in areas where trust has been eroded, the work that lies ahead is not solely their responsibility,” said Rose Johnson, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club, a local civil rights organization. “Real progress will be measured by our unified, collective efforts to be different and to do better in how we value human life.”
The Hall County Sheriff’s Office regularly conducts training sessions that teach officers how to de-escalate hostile or tense encounters, particularly with mentally ill subjects, and their efforts to police the streets are balanced with community outreach, said Hall County spokesman Deputy Stephen Wilbanks.
And officers are equipped with a wide range of “less lethal” weaponry, such as Tasers, shotguns that fire bean-bag rounds, and a paint-ball type gun that shoots pepper spray balls for crowd control, to better prevent deadly incidents.
“Although we have many tools at our fingertips, our best tool and most valuable tool is our officers,” Gainesville Police Chief Carol Martin said. “The training of de-escalation has become a core theme for our agency’s training program.”
This training includes “verbal persuasion tactics,” using distance, cover and time when appropriate, and a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training.
“De-escalation is the preferred, tactically sound approach in most critical incidents,” Martin said. “Community policing is not a program, it is a value system that permeates a police department, in which the primary organizational goal is working cooperatively with individual citizens, groups of citizens, and both public and private organizations to identify and resolve issues that potentially affect the livability of specific neighborhoods, areas or the city as a whole.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.