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Keith Lamont Scott and the Crime of Fleeing While Black

A new state Supreme Court decision may signal a path forward for Charlotte’s enraged protesters.

By Jared Keller


Police officers face off with protesters in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

The streets of Charlotte, North Carolina, are filled with protesters after police officers fatally shot 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott, an unarmed African-American man, amid a search for another suspect. The Huffington Post reports that Scott is the sixth police killing of a civilian in Charlotte in the past year; by the Washington Post’s count, he’s the 706th person fatally shot by law enforcement in 2016. While police video of the incident won’t be made public, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney says video of the shooting did not “definitively” show that Scott was armed (although it’s worth noting that, either way, North Carolina is an “open carry” state). Witnesses, including members of Scott’s family, say he was “clutching a book while waiting to pick up a child after school” when he was shot.

What’s especially alarming is that, according to Putney, officers opted to shoot Scott simply for “ignoring” their “loud and clear verbal commands” to drop a weapon — a weapon that doesn’t “definitively” exist. This detail echoes other cases in the last several years where police have used deadly force in instances when they didn’t face an imminent threat. There was Walter Scott, the South Carolina man shot in the back while fleeing a North Charleston police officer in April 2015. Or the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Paul O’Neal while attempting to elude capture in August, where police lied that O’Neal had fired on responding officers. Or Terence Crutcher, the black 40-year-old man killed the day before Scott in Tulsa, Oklahoma, recorded with his hands up while stopped by police. Sometimes even surrendering to police isn’t enough to escape the swift judgment of deadly force.

Since the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a national movement against police violence, it’s become largely understood that law enforcement suffers from implicit biases against certain demographic groups. A 2014 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that, from a young age, African-American boys are regarded as older and less innocent than their white peers, while similar research from Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests white people attribute superhuman (and uniquely dangerous) traits to blacks. Simulations conducted with current enforcement officers show that police tend to fire upon African-American suspects far more quickly than white ones. And no, African Americans aren’t gunned down because they’re more likely to commit crime, according to a 2015 PLoS Oneanalysis, which found that “there is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates.”

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling may be a bright spot in the middle of the long, bloody saga of police brutality against African Americans.

While protests continue in the streets of Charlotte, a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck a small but important blow against the implicit biases that led to the deaths of unarmed black men like Keith Scott. The state’s highest court ruled on Tuesday that African-American men who flee police officers should not always be deemed suspicious; given the disproportionate targeting of African Americans by Massachusetts police, they’re likely fleeing simply to “avoid the recurring indignity of being racially profiled.” In the eyes of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (which, despite the protestations of Beacon Hill, actually says what the law is), you can no longer be shot and killed simply for fleeing while black — in Massachusetts at least.

The court writes:

We do not eliminate flight as a factor in the reasonable suspicion analysis whenever a black male is the subject of an investigatory stop. However, in such circumstances, flight is not necessarily probative of a suspect’s state of mind or consciousness of guilt. Rather, the finding that black males in Boston are disproportionately and repeatedly targeted for FIO encounters suggests a reason for flight totally unrelated to consciousness of guilt…. Given this reality for black males in the city of Boston, a judge should, in appropriate cases, consider the report’s findings in weighing flight as a factor in the reasonable suspicion calculus.

Might this logic apply elsewhere? Absolutely — just look at North Carolina. A 2013 analysis of state-collected traffic stop data between 2000 and 2011 by Ian Mance, now an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, found that African Americans were 77 percent more likely than whites to be searched for the same violation (Hispanics were 96 percent more likely). A New York Times analysis revealed that, in Greensboro, North Carolina, officers were far more likely to pull over and search African-American drivers, “even though they found drugs and weapons significantly more often when the driver was white.” Mecklenburg County in particular, where Scott died, is home to “some of the strongest racial disparities in almost all common stop-and-search scenarios involving black motorists,” Mance wrote.

If you’re an African-American resident of North Carolina, there’s a strong chance you’ve personally endured the “recurring indignity of being racially profiled,” and it’s likely that refusal to submit that ended Keith Scott’s life. But the unfortunate truth of the ongoing protests in Charlotte is that the political movement against police violence itself suffers from that “recurring indignity.” Consider the propensity for conservative white Americans to label an angry community as little more than “thugs,” despite their ostensible philosophical similarities (pushing back on the state’s use of coercive force, for one). Or that data from the Public Religion Research Institute indicates that, while Americans overwhelmingly agree that protesting the government is a good thing, their opinions quickly change when the protesters are black. And we can’t blame Donald Trump alone for such phenomenon: Significant portions of both Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters describe African Americans as more “violent” and “criminal” than whites.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling may be a bright spot in the middle of the long, bloody saga of police brutality against African Americans. With lawmakers legislatively inept and statehouses (and presidential candidates) stymied by political expediency, perhaps the courts can, over time, erect a juridical scaffolding upon which a more righteous system of justice can flourish. Until then, it’s unlikely that the protesters in the streets of American cities like Charlotte will simply retreat; based on Keith Scott and Walter Scott and Crutcher and O’Neal, they know what comes next.