What Walter Scott really needed.

Starting with the obvious, what happened to Walter Scott was nothing short of terrible. A tragedy that absolutely could have been avoided. Why is a tech blog speaking about Walter, and his story? Because South Carolina Police think technology might be the answer.

Short version:

You cannot expect that strapping cameras to Police officers will be accepted as a step forward when dealing with the safety of all people on a day to day basis. They’re cameras, not super powers. Not some sort of morality device that makes you choose the most moral option for the given circumstances. We need real change in the form of training, screening, and continuing education.

Long version:

In South Carolina, a man named Walter Scott was murdered. Sounds pretty cut and dry, right? It’s a pretty simple case until you realize that the criminal was a Police officer, and that the whole scenario escalated from a routine check for a brake light that wasn’t working.

Once the officer pulled Walter over for the brake light, he realized that he had outstanding child support payments and a warrant for his arrest. This is when Walter decided to run. All of this seems like a routine thing that might happen to any police officer, on any given shift. This is after all, what police do.

Once the foot chase started, this scenario moved from a routine traffic check, to a murder. This is the point where the officer claimed a genuine fear for his own life, and that Walter was trying to take the officers taser from him. This is the point where Walter Scott was shot at eight times, and hit five while running away. This is the point where while Walter was laying on the ground, dead or dying, the police officer proceeded to “arrest” Walter Scott. This is when a murder was committed.

The police officer must have known he did something wrong when he proceeded to place the taser by Walter’s body. He must have known that something was wrong when he had a note book with the start of a ticket for a traffic violation, and ended with a dead body. Further to the original officer, the new officers to the scene must have known something was wrong when no one decided to check to see if Walter could’ve been saved, no matter how unlikely.

Flash forward. A man who witnessed the entire event, and even captured the majority of it on a cell phone camera submits the phone as evidence. The resolution? Don’t worry folks, now we’re getting body cameras for all of our police officers. You’re safe now. Did the department take a step in the right direction with this? I don’t know that they did. You see, to me, and my tech training, I’ve always been taught that the moment you have physical access to something, it can be tampered with, or hacked.

If anything, I think body cameras increase the safety of the officers, which isn’t a bad thing, but doesn’t help with the current situation. The issue here was judgement. Poor judgment on the officers part who shot and killed an unarmed man while he ran away. If you took all of that camera money, and quadrupled it, I still don’t think you’d have enough to touch the real problem, which seems to be morality.

The funny thing about morality is that it’s based on the viewpoint of the person in the moral dilemma. That’s why companies, like the Police force (people faced with moral choice all day everyday) are given additional rules known to most people as something called policies. I submit that policies should only be there for reference. That your screening should be based on those policies, and that it should be able to probe deep enough into a young candidates life to judge if they hold those values or need more life experience and counselling to make the cut, if ever. That “if ever” part is import. You shouldn’t be able to brute force your way into a position like law enforcement.

Your screening practices for officers should reflect your policies, and your officers should reflect their communities, or at the very least, a generic set of values and what’s right and wrong no matter where you’re posted. Your officers should be screened for racial and sexual biases, and evaluated in terms of risk. Your officers should be hired  based on a third party organization to avoid preferential hiring, and to ensure a non-biased hiring practice is in place. Your officers should spend more time in a class room then they do learning how to properly use their various crowd control and lethal force weapons.

Now, do all of these things happen? Do any combination of them happen? Does anything similar to what I’ve suggested happen? I don’t know. But I can tell you this. If they did happen, how is Walter Scott dead? An accident? The one percent that all of the screening couldn’t catch?

Finally, knowing what you’ve read this far, do you really think technology is the answer? This isn’t landing a rocket on Mars. We’re not innovating our way out of this one. This is just good ol’ fashioned common sense. Treat each other as you would like to be treated. Take an approach where your initial interaction isn’t because someone has done something wrong, but because you’re making sure everything is alright. Help people. I’m positive there are grey areas in all of this, but I think this solution, rather than tech, will have a better return on investment for everyone.

Although not my usual, this article still had a touch a tech in it. If you would like you can follow me through any of the social media buttons below, or drop your comments in the comments section.



  • Jordan

    I first heard about this story on NBC News a few days ago. They interviewed a cop in Seattle, where always having a camera around their necks is now the norm. I was delighted to hear that police officer describe how his awareness of the camera meant greater accountability for everyone.

    I can’t disagree with anything you’ve described above. It is clear to me that police forces throughout the United States (and probably Canada too) are in desperate need of better training both in terms of non-deadly tactical perspective and in the form of ethics. Yet Kent hit on the reason why I think having the cameras may be at least a great start. You did as well in your article, possibly without realizing it:

    “The police officer must have known he did something wrong when he proceeded to place the taser by Walter’s body. He must have known that something was wrong when he had a note book with the start of a ticket for a traffic violation, and ended with a dead body”

    There’s an ethical concept wherein one should imagine the actions they’re about to take as if someone else is watching and take action knowing that you’re being watched. I think there have been psychological studies done on this that indicate that when someone knows they’re being watched, they’re more likely to make sound ethical decisions. The camera basically acts like millions of potential watchers in this case, which might make a police officer second guess only those decisions which might cross an ethical boundary. With your statements above, you’re wondering why the officer didn’t know he was doing something wrong; it’s possible that with a ‘third party observer’ (the camera), that police officer would have realized that he was doing something wrong.

    Yes there’s flaws with this and clearly this ethical principle won’t apply to every single human being to the same degree, but I do think it’s a great start, particularly for cash-strapped police departments (since extensive training probably costs 5x as much as a few cameras). Hearing that Seattle police officer talk about how he now feels more comfortable knowing that the truth will be captured by that camera really made me happy that this technology is helping out.

    Krista and I were discussing the potential for tampering with the camera immediately after watching the NBC broadcast. I think it would be indicative that the office knew they were doing something wrong if they turned off the camera or refused to wear it for any given situation. You’re right that they could doctor the footage after the fact, but it’s not so easy to do that in a completely undetectable manner. They would really have to go out of their way to find a film expert to make that happen. And if they were caught? That would just add more criminal charges to their legal proceedings. I’m not sure it would be worth the trouble and money!

    • You’re right. A camera might make someone think twice before doing something terrible, wrong, or both. You’re right. Training would be significantly much more expensive. You’re even right that there have been significant studies to show that when the “all seeing” eye is on you, you’ll behave. We learn this from our childhood, I suspect.

      I don’t disagree with any of it. I just think that when it comes to our officers, and other positions of authority, we should invest in helping them train their morality while simultaneously protect them and our civilians with our technology. These cameras should just be there to gather evidence. Not because we need them. Ultimately, that is the only point I’m trying to make with this article. Well, the main point. The second (which is working) is to generate a conversation that might lead us as a whole to something better, or at the very least, something different.

  • Kent

    Excellent article Gabe. I don’t disagree that technology is not the solution, but instead a culture change is required. The cameras are a way to add a level of accountability, but also suggests that the police department needs to have extra oversight on their officers in order for them to act in an ethical manner. The public trust is lost, and making a change like this means the leadership of the department does not trust their own officers to act ethically on their own.

    I don’t know how to instil a culture change, but it requires something dramatic. In the 1990’s when the Canadian Airborne Regiment committed the act in Somalia, it was determined the culture in that Regiment was truly what was responsible for a young man’s unnecessary death. The regiment was disbanded, and new policies were enforced trough the Canadian Forces. It was extremely controversial at the time, but it was the only way to send the message that what we have trained our soldiers to do was not acceptable and needs to change.

    The amount of times this kind of incident hits the news is the states suggests to me that it is not necessarily who they are recruiting that are failing to make proper moral and ethical decisions, but that they are training their officers to escalate to violence and deadly force quickly. And given the lack of gun control measures in the USA, I’m not overly surprised or necessarily in disagreement with this training.

    When you are a police officer, you often put your life on the line for the betterment of your community, and the safety of the public. You put yourself in situations that can escalate quickly and go from a routine traffic stop to your life coming in danger. No one likes to get in trouble, people can’t afford to pay fines, and sometimes someone is not in a safe mental state when they are stopped by police officers. This is true regardless of the country, but in the United States, you add an additional variable in the equation. You add the fact that statistically, the person being stopped is armed with a concealed weapon. That if they so chose, they can make a quick and rash decision, and end your life for trying to keep the laws of your community enforced. This is the reality in the states, and as such they have trained their officers to assume they are always in danger, and that they have the right to protect themselves however they see fit. The rules of engagement heavily favour the police officers, because the odds suggest they will be dealing with an armed aggressor.

    With such a volatile situation, the number of deaths that occur from minor infractions is bound to increase, for both police and citizens. I’m not sure if the cameras are going to change that, but they will definitely shed more light on these situations. Officers will likely hesitate more now that they know their actions are under constant scrutiny. This may save some citizens lives, which is a positive, but it also may cause officers to hold back in situations where their gut feeling was right and cost their lives. We are also more likely to have officers arrested when they act to quickly, likely causing more stressors and tension on these police departments. They will be shorter staffed and constantly second guessing their every action.

    Until the gun culture in the US changes, either to having less in the country, or better training and responsibility for gun owners, I don’t see these unfortunate situations stopping. Hopefully these cameras will show the dangers of the society, and prove how difficult it is to be a moral police officer who can garuntee your own safety. The debate will continue, but the cameras are a surface bandage that is caused by the broken foundation of the culture of the United States and their police training.

    • Hey Kent. Great point about the gun violence in America, and the gun laws that allow that violence to be an umbrella issue above the one that I’ve written about. It’s easy to understand how a officer might feel like they are constantly threatened, and as a result, how they are more willing to escalate to force. I still believe, even in America, you can be a moral officer who rarely goes there, but like I mentioned in the article, that would require more money in training for things like body language and crisis intervention then they’re currently receiving.
      Ultimately, changing the law so guns are less available would decrease the need for these violent escalations as well, but I truly think that focusing on the humanity side of their role will make them better overall. This is just speculation, but I even believe this enhancement would help other sectors, like the medical one, by having police officers that are able to properly assign criminals / people who brake a law into the proper institutions for the help they require, instead of dumping them into the county jail. Thanks for taking the time to read!

      • Kent

        I love that we both agree that the current situation is so unthinkable if society is set-up with humanity as its focus. Re-affirms my belief in Canada, and love living here even more! Thanks again for the great article.