NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. » 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 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 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 Scott in the back, to plant a Taser by his body. 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 fatal shooting.
Others, saying a complete investigation is needed, have called any conclusions wildly premature.
The criticism of 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 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, who is 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 Habersham’s conduct.
"I’m the only black officer on my department, and it’s been that way for 20-something years," 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 Habersham’s role in the case evokes the complicated tensions among black officers, their white counterparts and black communities, 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.
Habersham grew up in Mount Pleasant, a well-to-do Charleston suburb of 75,000 people two rivers and an island away from North Charleston that is 91 percent white. Darius Rucker, the black country-music singer, lives in Mount Pleasant, as does Scarlett A. Wilson, the white prosecutor overseeing any case against Slager and the responding officers.
Habersham, who goes by C.J., was part of the football and track teams at Wando High School in Mount Pleasant before he played as a 6-foot-1, 260-pound defensive lineman at Elon University in North Carolina.
"I don’t know a thing bad about him," said the father of one of his high school teammates, who declined to be identified because he did not want to be part of the controversy. He added, "I feel like he’s just kind of a victim of circumstances and really didn’t do anything wrong but was trying to help."
Ed Mikell, 69, who is white and was Habersham’s track coach on the high school relay team, said he saw an unusually protective side to the young man.
"Some of his so-called friends, fellow students, were not very polite to teachers and coaches and so forth," Mikell said. "When one of them would say something to me, he’d get in their face and tell them no. I watched him do it several times. My son is an ex-police officer. I wouldn’t rush to judgment on a police officer. I’d want more facts before I made a decision."
He said Habersham put high expectations on himself.
"I lost several batons due to his temper," Mikell said. "He would get mad and throw them down and bend them up. The temper was basically aimed at himself, not at somebody else."
Habersham attended Elon from 1998 to 2002 but did not complete his degree, a university spokesman said. He joined the North Charleston force in 2007, about two years before Slager applied in 2009.
On April 4, Habersham arrived on the scene after Slager, 33, who has since been charged with murder, fired eight shots at Scott as he was some distance away, fleeing after a traffic stop and a confrontation.
In the video, as Scott lies in a grassy lot after Slager has handcuffed him, Habersham can be seen crouching over Scott and at other times standing over him while directing medics to the lot on his radio. He does not appear to perform CPR on Scott in the video, and he did not claim to have done so in his two-sentence report, stating that he "attempted to render aid to the victim by applying pressure to the gunshot wounds." Yet there are moments in the video when neither officer appears to be tending to Scott as he lies dying.
Some experts question that response.
"I wouldn’t have expected him to jump immediately into CPR," Seth W. Stoughton, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former police officer, said of Habersham. "You need to treat the bullet holes first to make CPR even remotely effective. But I didn’t really see him doing that. When I see two officers on scene with someone who has just been shot, I certainly do not expect to see both of them standing up and away from the body, neither one of them offering aid."
Slager is shown in the video picking up an object from another part of the lot and then dropping either that object or something else by Scott’s body. Habersham was standing over Scott, putting on blue medical gloves, when Slager dropped the object, and it is unclear in the video if he saw it happen. Civil rights activists contend that the dropped object was a Taser that Slager said Scott had tried to take from him.
The shooting is also being investigated by state and federal agencies.
Wilson, the prosecutor, said in a statement that the case involved not only the shooting death of Scott but also "members of the North Charleston Police Department." Mayor R. Keith Summey has suggested that other officers might be disciplined, but he has also pointed out that Habersham tried to prevent the bleeding, adding, "If it was fast enough, I don’t know, but he was directing the ambulance in."
Habersham has not made any public statements since the shooting, and he did not respond to emails. On Tuesday, a woman who came to the door of his house in Summerville referred questions to the Police Department. A police spokesman said he was still at work but declined to comment further.
Habersham and four other officers are accused in a federal lawsuit filed last year of beating a black robbery suspect who was handcuffed in November 2011. It was unclear whether Habersham participated in the beating, witnessed it but failed to stop it, or played some other role, if any, but the lawsuit also accuses him and other officers of failing to render aid to the suspect.
"This is the Old South, and you have the Old South mentality here," said Edward Bryant, president of the North Charleston chapter of the NAACP. "The whites are always in charge. They’re the lead person, and Mr. Habersham is being in that role as they had it in the 1800s."
In the 2011 case, the suspect, Sheldon Williams, 47, was hiding under the bed in a motel room when Habersham and other officers searched the room, according to court documents. The officers lifted the mattress, pinned Williams within the wooden bed frame and stomped on his face while he was handcuffed, according to the lawsuit. His lawyers claim he was not resisting arrest and was left with broken facial bones.
"What’s more disturbing than someone beating someone up is having his fellow officers watch and do nothing," said James Edward Bell III, a lawyer for Williams, who is now serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery.
Sandra Jane Senn, a lawyer representing the officers, said Habersham was dropped from a separate state lawsuit by Williams, as were the other officers, leaving the Police Department the only defendant in the state case. She declined to comment further.
Some black leaders and former police officers say Habersham’s critics reacted too quickly. They say that Habersham may not have seen Slager do anything suspicious and that it was impossible to determine, based on a brief video, what aid Habersham provided Scott throughout the entire response.
"We have to wait and see what that investigation details," said Cedric L. Alexander, the president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and a member of a task force created by President Barack Obama that examined police practices in minority communities.
Justin Bamberg, a lawyer representing Scott’s family, agreed. "All we have right now is what’s in the police reports, which is nothing," Bamberg said, referring to the brief reports the responding officers filed. "When I see those police reports, they tell me, ‘Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.’"
Manny Fernandez, New York Times