A Police Shooting and a Taser

A Police Shooting and a Taser

A disturbing video, which you can see in full here, shows a white North Charleston, S.C., police officer shooting a black man in the back as he runs away. The officer has been charged with murder.

Apparently the officer pulled the man over for a broken taillight, and a foot pursuit and a struggle ensued. (The man had a family-court warrant.) The video begins after that, as the man makes a final break for it.

What is clear from the video is that the officer shot the man in the back as he fled. What's less clear is what was going on with the officer's Taser. The officer has claimed the man "took my Taser," but the video shows something falling to the ground behind the officer as the man runs, another object on the ground in front of him, the officer going back to pick something up later, and then the officer dropping something near the body. Some have suggested the officer was planting the Taser.

What's especially odd is that there are wires extending from the officer to the man as the man runs away, which I've captured in a rough GIF animation below. (Look closely at the area below and to the left of the officer's arms.) The officer certainly isn't acting as if he's been Tased, and hasn't claimed that he was, but the path the wires take -- from the officer's arms/shoulders toward the man's body -- is perplexing, because the officer is holding his pistol, not his Taser, and many believe the Taser was on the ground by this point. It's possible the wires draped over the officer's shoulder somehow as the weapon fell, but the wires don't seem to extend toward either of the objects on the ground.

[Update: Another possibility that occurred to me after repeated viewings is that the wires got caught on the officer's belt or gun when the Taser fell, and he grabbed them as he drew the gun.]

To be clear, I am not presenting this as any sort of evidence that the shooting was justified, but I do think it's important to discover and carefully consider all the facts, including the location of the Taser, a weapon capable of incapacitating an officer, at this point of the video. (Some Tasers can fire more than once, or be applied directly to someone's body after being fired.) Under Supreme Court precedent, it is unconstitutional for a state to allow officers to kill someone just for trying to get away, but lethal force can be justified against a fleeing suspect if the officer has "probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others." It appears that South Carolina doesn't impose a stricter standard than that.

From the video, it looks unlikely that the officer's conduct met that standard -- even if the man was making off with the Taser, his goal was almost certainly just to escape -- but the legal issues are complicated and there's a lot that is murky in the video.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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