NewsCrime Desk

Police officer charged with murder after shocking video emerges

Shocking: The man is seen fleeing before being shot by the police officer
Shocking: The man is seen fleeing before being shot by the police officer
Patrolman Michael Slager
Patrolman Michael Slager

A South Carolina police officer has been charged with murder hours after authorities saw a dramatic video that appears to show him shooting a fleeing man several times in the back.

North Charleston mayor Keith Summey announced the charges at a hastily-called news conference in which he said City Patrolman Michael Slager made "a bad decision".

The shooting on Saturday, which began as a traffic stop, occurred as Americans grapple with issues of trust between police and minority communities after a series of deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of officers.

They include the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York. Both sparked protests nationwide.

In the Charleston case, authorities said the victim, Walter Scott, 50, was shot after the officer had already hit him with a stun gun.

"When you're wrong, you're wrong," Mr Summey said. "When you make a bad decision, don't care if you're behind the shield or a citizen on the street, you have to live with that decision."

A video of the shooting released to news outlets shows the officer firing several times at Mr Scott's back while he was running away. Mr Scott falls on the eighth shot, fired after a brief pause. The video then shows the officer slowly walking towards him and ordering him to put his hands behind his back.

Warning: Contains scenes of a violent nature.

When Mr Scott does not move, Slager pulls his arms back and cuffs his hands. Then he walks briskly back to where he fired the shots, picks up an object, and returns the 30 feet or so back to Mr Scott before dropping the object by Mr Scott's feet.

Lawyer Chris Stewart, who came to North Charleston a day after the shooting to represent the Scott family, said the video forced authorities to act quickly and decisively and called the person who made the video a hero.

"What happened today doesn't happen all the time," he told a news conference. What if there was no video?" Mr Scott's mother stood nearby, saying "Thank you, Lord" and "Hallelujah".

Mr Scott may have tried to run from the officer because he owed child support, which can get someone sent to jail in South Carolina until they pay it back, Mr Stewart said.

He had four children, was engaged and had been honourably discharged from the US Coast Guard. There were no violent offences on his record, the lawyer said. Mr Stewart said the family planned to sue the police department.

One of Mr Scott's brothers said later that the family was thankful for the video, shot by an unidentified witness, because without it they might not have received justice.

"If we didn't see the video, would we know the truth?" said Anthony Scott. "From the beginning all we wanted was the truth. We can't get my brother back but through the process, justice has been served."

Slager's lawyer, David Aylor, dropped him as a client a day after he had released a statement saying the officer felt threatened and that Mr Scott was trying to grab the officer's stun gun.

"This is a terrible tragedy that has impacted our community," said Mr Aylor.

North Charleston Police said Slager was arrested by officers of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said the FBI would also investigate the shooting.

At the news conference, North Charleston police chief Eddie Driggers confirmed Mr Scott was shot as he was running away from the officer.

"I have been around this police department a long time and all the officers on this force, the men and women, are like my children," he said, his voice cracking with emotion. "So you tell me how a father would react seeing his child do something? I'll let you answer that yourself."

Slager was denied bail at a brief first appearance hearing. He was not accompanied by a lawyer. If convicted, he could face 30 years to life in prison.