After Walter Scott Shooting, Scrutiny Turns to Black Police Officer Who Was the First to Respond to the Scene

Clarence W. Habersham Jr., at right, was the first officer to arrive on the scene after the fatal police shooting of Walter L. Scott by Officer Michael T. Slager, left.
Clarence W. Habersham Jr., at right, was the first officer to arrive on the scene after the fatal police shooting of Walter L. Scott by Officer Michael T. Slager, left.

He did not fire a shot. He is black, not white.

But Clarence W. Habersham Jr., the first officer to arrive on the scene after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man named Walter L. Scott, is drawing intense scrutiny both for the questions surrounding his response to the shooting and for what his role has illuminated about the pressures and expectations facing black officers in largely white police departments.

Critics of Officer Habersham, 37, including black leaders and lawyers, have called for him to be prosecuted for what they say was his failure to provide adequate aid to Mr. Scott, 50, and for appearing to go along with what many viewers of a video of the shooting believe was an attempt by Michael T. Slager, the white officer who fatally shot Mr. Scott in the back, to plant a Taser by his body.

Officer Habersham later said in a brief police report that he tried to aid the victim by putting pressure on his wounds, but critics say the video does not show him performing CPR or acting with urgency in response to the shooting.

Others, saying a complete investigation is needed, have called any conclusions wildly premature.

The criticism of Officer Habersham by the Rev. Al Sharpton; the National Bar Association, a mostly African-American legal group; and others has complicated the typical racial dynamics in high-profile police killings. And it has touched off a debate among black officials, community leaders and residents about whether to support or denounce Officer Habersham, one of a handful of black officers in a largely white police force in a city that is 47 percent black, or to reserve judgment about him.

“It’s hard,” said Charles P. Wilson, chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers and a lieutenant in a campus police force at a Rhode Island college. He is among those who say it is too early to make any judgments about Officer Habersham’s conduct.

“I’m the only black officer on my department, and it’s been that way for 20-something years,” Lieutenant Wilson said. “You often find yourself in a quandary, if you will, when situations like this come up. Do you speak out or do you remain silent? A lot of officers choose to be silent, unfortunately.”

For all the ways Officer Habersham’s role in the case evokes the complicated tensions among black officers, their white counterparts and black communities, Officer Habersham has spent much of his life in a racially mixed and often majority-white world. Friends, acquaintances and a former coach, many of them white, described him as a quiet, compassionate and humble man who is protective of those close to him. As a result, some people here say, there is no simple way to assess the role race played in his response, or whether he was influenced more by loyalty to the department or to a fellow officer.

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SOURCE: MANNY FERNANDEZ
The New York Times

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