Once again, what a difference a video makes.
As soon as I saw the cellphone video of the fatal shooting of Walter Scott by Officer Michael Slager of the North Charleston Police Department in South Carolina, I wondered how the apologists for police misconduct were going to spin this one.
The universal presence of cellphone cameras and Twitter-age activism has produced a string of tragic racially tinged and often video-recorded controversies across the country, further enflamed by 24/7 chatter about who and where to place blame.
The talk show debates sound like a broken record. One side suspects a wave of police oppression aimed at young black men. The other side counters by changing the subject: "Why don't you talk more about the collapse of the black family?" Meanwhile, more people die and trust in law enforcement further erodes.
Against that backdrop, Walter Scott's death looks like everyone's worst nightmare of police misconduct, all caught on video.
Had there not been a cellphone video, shot by bystander Feidin Santana, we would only have Officer Slager's version of events, which he gave over his radio at the scene. Slager maintained he shot Scott, 50, after Scott tried to wrestle away his Taser during a routine traffic stop.
But after Scott's family gave Santana's video to The New York Times, a very different narrative unfolded. Santana's video shows the two men tussling, apparently moments after Slager fired his Taser at Scott. An object that may be the Taser falls to the ground and Scott turns to run away.
When Scott's about 15 feet to 20 feet away, the Officer Slager fires eight times. Scott falls to the ground.
Slager later picks up what could be the Taser and drops it near Scott's body.
A second video from a police dashboard camera raises more questions about the traffic stop. It shows a calm conversation between the two men; then, as the officer walks back to his car with Scott's license, Scott suddenly bolts out of his car and runs away, followed by Slager.
Even uber-conservative Sean Hannity on Fox News sounded appalled. "You do not shoot an innocent man in the back eight times, in cold blood like this!" he declared.
That left his black conservative activist pal Jesse Lee Peterson to carry the weight of calling for fair play for police: "I'm not justifying at all the action of the police officer," Peterson said, "but what I am saying is that we, as American citizens, owe it to the officer to give him the benefit of the doubt and to wait until we get all the information."
I won't argue with that, but I'll also call for getting "all the information" about systemic police practices, too.
The Los Angeles Times, for example, reports that black residents have feared "a culture of over-policing" in North Charleston for years. "In a city that is 47.2 percent African American and 41.6 percent white, blacks were stopped almost twice as often, year after year," the newspaper found, "according to state law enforcement data of all stops that did not lead to an arrest or ticket."
That sounds a lot like the Justice Department's investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department after Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed black teen Michael Brown.
Although the report concluded that Wilson acted in self-defense, it also found a culture in which disproportionate traffic stops, heavy fines and jail were used as a revenue stream for local government -- at the disproportionate expense of African Americans.
Coincidentally, Ferguson held their first municipal elections this past week after that national controversy erupted last year. Turnout by black voters more than doubled from less than 15 percent to 30 percent. Two more African-Americans were elected to the six-member City Council, bringing the total to three black members for the first time.
That's not quite proportional to the black population in Ferguson, but it's a big start toward representative government and accountability.
It also sends an important message to the rest of the country. Protests and investigations are fine, but if you want police and the rest of government to be accountable, get out and vote.
E-mail Clarence Page at email@example.com.