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Walter Scott mistrial: early test for Trump on civil rights

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The mistrial in the case of a police officer who shot a fleeing black man has turned attention to an upcoming federal civil rights case. How Trump handles it could be revealing. 

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Mary Smith, a Black Lives Matter protester, holds her sign in front of the Charleston County Courthouse during a press conference after the mistrial was declared in the Michael Slager trial on Monday in Charleston, S.C.

Mic Smith/AP

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The mistrial of a former police officer in South Carolina could become one of the first tests of how the Trump administration will handle law and order and police accountability.

On Monday, a state judge declared a mistrial in the case of Michael Slager, who was filmed fatally shooting black motorist Walter Scott several times in the back during an April 2015 incident. Jurors could not agree on a verdict, even though the video showed Scott running away from the officer when the latter apparently fired.

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Prosecutors say they will retry the case. But those who see the lack of a conviction as a miscarriage of justice have also focused on an upcoming federal civil rights case against Mr. Slager. That case, brought by the Obama Justice Department, now hangs in the balance.

On the campaign trail, President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly sided with police on the issue of law and order, deemphasizing President Obama’s focus on police misconduct. Whether the Trump administration continues with Mr. Slager’s federal case – and how aggressively –could be revealing more broadly, offering clues as to how Trump will approach one of the most fraught social and political issues in America today.

“Every bit of [the Scott case] is fundamental to the basic rule of law, which is the principle that every person, no matter their race, is treated the same by the police and the justice system,” says Matthew Miller, the former spokesman for Attorney General Eric Holder. “What worries a lot of people is whether a [Trump Justice Department] would as aggressively investigate” cops and police departments or back them “without question.”

Importance of the case

Some experts have seen the Slager case as something of a landmark, in that the video offers unusually strong evidence that a police officer acted with unnecessarily lethal force against a black civilian. The lawyer for the Scott family says the jury of 11 whites and one black was hung because of a single holdout. At the trial, the defense claimed there was more evidence than what the video showed. 

If there is no conviction in such a case, these experts say, convictions in other cases would seem even less likely.

In that way, the case was a natural target for the Obama administration, which has put greater focus on the treatment of black Americans by police. Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch have investigated nearly two dozen police departments for patterns and practices that violate federal civil rights law and have forced 11 into consent decrees where reforms are overseen by federal judges.

Trump’s pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, has taken an opposite view in the past.

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In a 2008 speech to an Alabama police group, Senator Sessions condemned federal investigations of local police departments as overreach. And last year, amid Black Lives Matter protests against police violence, Sessions introduced the Thin Blue Line Act that would have made it easier to impose the death penalty in cases where first responders are murdered.

That might clash with the approach Obama has taken during the past few years – but it is Obama’s approach, not Sessions’, that is out of line with historical norms. Indeed, the Obama administration’s focus on the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department has at times caused tensions within the Justice Department and the broader law-enforcement community.

“Police see Trump [and Sessions] as people who are going to protect them, but it’s important to understand that this is not particularly a huge break with the past,” says George Ciccariello-Maher, a political scientist at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Historically, he says, the default mode has been less activist and more along the lines of: “Let’s leave it in the hands of local prosecutors, and let’s not stick our hands in where they don’t belong”

In a rare shakeup in October, higher-ups at the Justice Department replaced the team of federal agents looking into the death of Eric Garner in New York. In that case, a local grand jury declined to bring charges despite video that showed an officer choking Mr. Garner until he died. Efforts to indict the officer on federal charges have been slow: Federal Bureau of Investigation officials have been opposed to bringing charges, while Civil Rights Division staffers have seen clear evidence that Garner's rights were violated.

How a Trump administration might respond

Such clashes would be unlikely under Sessions, who would tone down the activist element of the Obama Justice Department, say some experts.

Sessions is a “principled legal conservative,” says Bob Driscoll, who served as chief of staff for the Civil Rights Division under President George W. Bush. The most noticeable change in a Sessions Justice Department will be a focus on “the law without regard for political consequences.”

The Obama era has been driven by well-meaning push to “do something” about police killings, Mr. Driscoll says. But that has created a perception that some police departments are “a bunch of thugs.”

“I don’t have any doubt that Sessions would [take Slager to trial] if it was appropriate,” Driscoll says. “But I don’t think he’d bring a case under political pressure to ‘do something.’ ”

More deeply, what could change going forward is an amplified sense of both sides feeling justified in their worldviews, suggests Professor Ciccariello-Maher.

“What this means is very important, which is that the clash in the streets between Black Lives Matter-type movements and police is going to be sharper, and the stakes of that debate are going to be deepened, because both sides are being confirmed,” he says. “The police will now be defended by the federal government, and the [civil rights] movements will know perfectly well that what they’ve been saying about the police has been true."