Girth Radio Presents…
His name was Walter Scott.
The events that transpired on a mundane April morning in North Charleston, South Carolina became yet another hyper-visible example of police violence in the United States.
The shooting of Walter Scott catapulted into a national discussion on race and the overwhelming number of incidents like this in the United States. Walter Scott, 50, whose killing was captured on video by a brave bystander, was stopped for a non-functioning third brake light. The officer* determined that Scott had an open warrant for failure to pay child support, and moved to arrest him. Afraid, he fled on foot to a nearby-secluded lot, where it is alleged that he and the officer that would later kill him engaged in a physical altercation.
According to the New York Times, Scott was apparently determined not to spend Easter in jail, and during the chase the arresting officer is presumed to have used his Taser. The device did not seem to have the desired immobilizing effect, and Scott continued to flee.
As he was turning to flee, Walter Scott was shot at eight times. He was fleeing with a Taser barb still embedded in his flesh.
Frame 394 documents the journey of the Canadian man who became entangled in the high-profile case.
While scouring the Internet one night, Daniel Voshart became fascinated by the highly publicized images and shaky cell phone footage that captured the shooting. Voshart, a cinematographer and a MA of architecture grad, analyzed the footage and used image stabilization software to find evidence that would indict the police officer. However, what he found is something that radically changed the narrative of the events, potentially aiding the case of the man he initially sought to incriminate.
During the melee, something – it is unclear what it is – is tossed or knocked to the ground behind the two men, and the officer draws his gun. Unnoticed by either of the men, Scott is seen fleeing, and then falling to the ground after the last of the eight shots.
The Supreme Court of the United States maintains that an officer may use deadly force against a fleeing suspect only when there is probable cause that the suspect “poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”
In 2015, 1152 people were killed by police officers – compared to Canada where only 23 people were shot and killed by police last year. An overwhelming number of those 1152 individuals belonged to racialized groups, and nearly 1 in 3 Black people killed by police were identified as unarmed.
In North Charleston, residents have complained that the policing practices routinely include the harassment and racial profiling of African Americans, including the frequent use of Tasers without cause. Furthermore, in North Charleston, white people make up 37 percent of the population but are overrepresented within the police department, which is 80 percent white, based on 2007 data.
The New York Times reports that the aggressive tactics by North Charleston’s predominantly white police force includes frequent stops of drivers and pedestrians for minor violations, and an increased police presence in high-crime, mostly Black areas, has reportedly led to a decrease in violent crime. However, to many in North Charleston, the strategy comes at a high cost, and provides a disturbing context to the events of April 4, 2015.
As computed by The Charleston Post & Courier in 2006, North Charleston cops used Tasers 201 times in an 18-month period, averaging once every 40 hours in one six-month stretch and disproportionately against African Americans. This information was collated after the death of a man named Kip Black, who was tasered six times on one occasion and nine times on another.
Walter Scott had been arrested 10 times, mostly for failing to pay child support or to show up for court hearings, which the film acknowledges. At one point, Voshart suggests that Walter Scott may have only been making $10,000 a year. It is believed that Walter Scott fled from the police because he was afraid of going to jail for owing child support.
Where Frame 394 fails is in its lack of insight into the social realities that constrained the actions of both Scott and the officer that shot him. The motivations that could have impelled Walter Scott to run are reduced to a two-minute feature in the conclusion. The documentary is unsuccessful in that it does not pay enough attention to his incentives and although unintentionally, ends up replicating the same victim-blaming narrative that is shared by vocal opponents of movements such as Black Lives Matter.
Even when it tries to convey the racial tension within North Charleston – which serves as a representation for the United States as a whole – it is understood through the white male gaze of the film’s subject; Black people are in the periphery. Walter Scott’s death is a plot point, solely relevant to the larger narrative of the documentary, but whose death only serves to move the narrative forward. Very little time is dedicated to information about Scott, or his motivations.
Conversely, the film tries to humanize the officer; his wife had a baby shortly after his arrest, she was hospitalized due to stress – but this courtesy is not extended to his victim. Instead, we are told that he may have been afraid of going to prison for being in arrears of child support payment, and that he may have grabbed the Taser or started the physical altercation.
It is irresponsible to film a documentary in the ‘pursuit of truth’ and to tell an incomplete story. Frame 394 seems satisfied to capitalize on the violence (and goes as far as to show the shooting several times in the film), but humanizing Walter Scott and putting his actions into perspective was omitted for the film; it discusses that the officer may have had justified cause for using force, but it neglects to mention that Scott may have had justification to run.
The documentary does try to cast a light on the unjust system that makes people such as Walter Scott do desperate things. In his case, he ran when he shouldn’t have run, and in the case of the officer, he shot when he shouldn’t have shot.
What Frame 394 offers is a window into the nationally brewing tensions at the intersections of policing, violence and racism in the United States. The shooting of Walter Scott is one of many tragic occurrences in recent years; a period that has included other widely publicized deaths of unarmed Black men at the hands of police. They include the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
The trial of the North Charleston officer that shot Walter L. Scott* is scheduled for October 31, 2016.
Frame 394 premiered at Hot Docs, read about it here
*This article has intentionally omitted the name of the officer charged with the murder of Walter L. Scott.