The first time John Singletary met Walter Scott, the man whose April 4 death at the hands of North Charleston Police Officer Michael T. Slager has now attracted worldwide attention, Scott had fallen behind on child support payments, according to Singletary, and was trying to change his situation.
At the time, Singletary was the employment coordinator for the Father to Father Project, a North Charleston-based program that aims to help dads reconnect with their children and catch up on child support payments. Some men enter the program voluntarily; others are required to take the classes by a court order. The program’s director estimates Scott entered the program in 2007 or 2008 but says he cannot remember whether he enrolled by choice.
“He owed child support,” Singletary says. “Many of the people in there owed child support, and what he actually did was he came to the program, we got him a job, and then he started paying his child support, and from there on he was pretty straight.”
Sometime after that, Scott began to slip on his child-support payments again. When Officer Slager pulled Scott over on April 4 for a broken car taillight, Charleston County Family Court had an active bench warrant out for Scott’s arrest, according to a county spokesman. Reports have varied as to what Scott owed in back child support, but NBC News recently put the total at more than $18,000. Court records indicate that Scott had been taken to court before for missing payments.
Singletary, a photographer and accountant who is currently running for mayor of North Charleston, says that Scott became “a personal friend of mine” after helping to secure a job for Scott in home construction. “He was just a joy to be around, not the kind of person that was aggressive, violent, anything like that,” Singletary says.
Like most family members and acquaintances of Scott’s who have spoken to the media, Singletary says he was “extremely shocked” to hear Officer Slager make the claim, via an attorney, that he felt threatened by the soft-voiced and gentle-hearted man he had known. “I would think that, talking with a policeman, [Scott] would go as far as saying ‘Yes sir, no sir,’ because he was well-mannered. Very respectful,” Singletary says.
It wasn’t just Scott’s disposition that made him seem unlikely to put up a fight. Part of the six-month program that Scott completed dealt specifically with how to interact with law enforcement officers, according to Father to Father Executive Director William Jenkins.
“You give them skills so they can communicate with the kids and their mother,” Jenkins says, “but also when you’re talking to the family court judge and how to talk with the DSS caseworker, how to talk with the policeman when he stops you for a busted taillight.”
Scott and Slager’s lives had a few details in common. Both men had served in the Coast Guard, Slager as a fireman and Scott as a fireman’s apprentice — relatively low ranks on a ship. Scott was about to get married; Slager was about to become a father again. But perhaps the most striking commonality between the two men is that they both had been trained and instructed how to interact with each other peaceably.
According to Slager’s employment records with the North Charleston Police Department, a basic training supervisor twice wrote that he “spoke with [Slager] in reference to certain procedures in reference to conducting motor vehicle stops and citizen contacts.” Slager had also taken continuing-education classes in “Bias Base Profiling” and CPR, and he had sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution, “never employing unnecessary force.”
The last time Singletary saw Scott, he says, was two weeks ago when they ran into each other in a gas station and talked for 20 minutes before parting ways. Singletary says Scott was finding himself in a tough spot again financially. After working the construction job he had acquired through Father to Father, he had moved on to another job and then lost it, and now the back child-support payments were piling up once more, according to Singletary.
“I think he’d lost a job and gotten behind,” Singletary says. “That, to me, is the reason why he would have fled, because he was concerned about paying child support.”
Jenkins remembers fewer specific details about Scott’s time with Father to Father, but he remembers Scott as being “very soft-spoken, very friendly, serious-minded.” In the building’s spartan lobby area, a wall is covered in framed photographs of men who have graduated the program, clutching their diplomas and standing in rows. Most of the men in the pictures are black; Jenkins estimates that 90 to 95 percent of his program’s participants are African-American.
“Obviously there’s always tension, especially with young African-American males and the police,” Jenkins says. “But that’s not just North Charleston, of course. That’s the whole country.”