One of my first coherent thoughts after viewing the Walter Scott video (after the outrage and disbelief and gratitude that the incident was recorded) was, “In Vermont, the police don’t shoot black guys. They shoot the mentally ill.”
It’s obvious to me that if the killing of Walter Scott hadn’t been recorded, it would have come down to the word of a live cop versus the silence of a dead victim. The result, almost certainly, would have been the exoneration of the cop and the staining of the victim’s reputation.
We don’t have enough black people to have our own Fergusons or Walter Scotts or Abner Louimas. But we do have our Mac Masons and Woody Woodwards and Wayne Brunettes. And in every case, the police version is accepted without serious question.
The Walter Scott video calls that presumption into question. That South Carolina policeman not only gunned down a fleeing man; he tried to frame him. If that officer is capable of such callousness and deceit, how are we to believe other officers who may be well-trained and may have a commitment to justice, but also have the most profound self-interest in avoiding prosecution and disgrace?
We have seen it with our own eyes: in that situation, a cop is as capable of lying as anyone else.
Encounters with the mentally ill are particularly troublesome for all involved. People with mental illnesses may not be able to respond appropriately to police commands. Indeed, the usual police tactic — brandishing a weapon and shouting instructions — may well be counterproductive.
It’s unfair to expect a policeman — who may be making less than a living wage — to react with the insight and diplomacy of a mental health professional. These are tough situations that play out in mere seconds of real time.
But the Walter Scott case shows us that we can’t assume the police are telling the truth in all cases. And that is clearly the default position of Vermont authorities, particularly Attorney General Bill Sorrell.
Are police in tough situations? Yes. Do they often, or usually, do the right thing? I’m sure they do.
Are they always blameless — as blameless as Sorrell and his fellows seem to believe? Hell, no.