© Josh Sager – August 2014
As everybody who follows the news has already heard, last week a Ferguson Missouri police officer shot and killed an 18-year old black teenager. This shooting has provoked a massive response by the public and has become the rallying cry for a movement protesting police brutality and the criminalization of African Americans.
Personally, I have been following this story since it occurred, but have not written about it until now for the simple reason that the police have refused to release any relevant information—they have withheld the autopsy, toxicological report, ballistics report, official witness statements, and virtually all other official investigative documents. What we knew about the shooting was largely given to us by eyewitnesses who approached the media. Fortunately, the preliminary autopsy report was just released, giving us some ability to assign credibility to certain witnesses.
Here is what we do know: On the afternoon of August 9th, 18-year old Michael Brown was walking down the street in Ferguson, Missouri, with his friend Dorian Johnson. They were traveling back to Brown’s family home after stealing a $49 box of cigarillos from a local shop, when Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer, stopped them for walking in the street. After a short confrontation which led one shot to be fired in the police car, Brown ran away from the car and Officer Wilson followed. Almost immediately after leaving the car, Officer Wilson fired between six and eight shots into Brown, striking him in the arm multiple times, chest once, and head twice—all bullets hit Brown from the front, except for the final shot to the head, which impacted from the top of the skull downward (showing that Brown was either kneeling, charging, or falling forward).
Within these events, there are details which determine whether the shooting was justified, and what the fate of the officer will be.
According to Dorian Johnson, Officer Wilson was extremely combative when he pulled up next to them and swore at them while demanding that they leave the street. When Brown said that they would get out of the street but are almost home, Wilson turned the car around, pulled up beside the teens, and grabbed hold of Brown’s neck. Brown, being a very large teen was able to pull away from Wilson, and Wilson pulled his gun. After seeing the gun, Brown ran down the street while Johnson took cover by a nearby car. When he got out of his vehicle, Wilson fired at Brown, causing him to stop running, and turn around with his hands up—at this point, Wilson fired the shots which actually struck and killed Brown.
According to the police, Brown lunged into the police officer’s car when he was stopped, tried to grab Officer Wilson’s gun—striking him several times—and, when he failed, he took off running. The police then allege that by the time that Wilson left the car, Brown was 35 feet away, at which point he decided to run back towards the car in order to attack Wilson. To stop Brown from charging him, Officer Wilson fired at Brown, shooting him multiple times and killing him.
While there will be a trial that determines the facts of the case, I think that the police story is simply ridiculous and that they are grasping at straws to justify the shooting of an over-aggressive and under-trained police officer. The idea that anybody (never mind a college-bound teen with no criminal record) would try to grab a police officer’s gun to avoid being caught jaywalking is patently absurd, as is the idea that Brown would run dozens of feet away from the car, then charge back through gunfire to harm the officer.
Several witnesses who have talked to the media have accounts that match up with Johnson’s descriptions of the events leading up to the shooting. They do not report seeing Brown charge the officer, nor do they confirm the assertion by police that Brown struggled for the officer’s gun. Additionally, the preliminary autopsy doesn’t show any sign of a struggle over a weapon, and concluded that the shots were fired from a distance.
Personally, I think that Officer Wilson felt disrespected by Brown when his orders to get out of the street were not immediately followed, thus he decided to throw his weight around. He grabbed Brown through the car window in order to intimidate him, but underestimated how strong Brown was and panicked when Brown pulled away. This panic led him to draw his gun and fire, causing Brown to run away in fear. By the time that Wilson got out of the car, Brown was 30 feet away and Wilson started firing—the first shot either missed (Brown was not shot through the back) or grazed his hand, leading Brown to turn around with his hands up. Because he was caught up in the situation, Wilson failed to recognize Brown’s surrender, and continued to fire, shooting and killing Brown.
If my reading of the situation is correct, the officer is guilty of 2nd degree murder and should be brought up on charges immediately.
Failed Attempts at Mitigation
In response to the public outcry over the Michael Brown shooting, the police have attempted to mitigate the responsibility of their officer in several underhanded ways—these methods are used to poison the jury pool and assassinate the character of the victim in the public eye.
First, on Friday the 15th, they called a press conference where announced that that they would be giving additional details of the shooting to the press, but instead they released a video from a local bodega showing Michael Brown stealing cigarillos. This video was given to the media in a way that suggested it was the reason why Brown was stopped, and only later did the police clarify that the robbery had nothing to do with the shooting—the officer who killed Brown had no knowledge of the robbery and actually stopped him for jaywalking.
Put simply, this video is irrelevant, prejudicial, and a blatant attempt by the police to make excuses for their officer’s actions. As the officer had no knowledge of the robbery, it didn’t factor into his thinking, actions, or posture in the slightest (if he were confronting a robber instead of a jaywalker, he could more easily justify his aggression).
There is a very simple thought experiment to demonstrate how ridiculous this attempt at mitigation is: Imagine that a police officer is shot by a gang member while attempting to arrest him for selling drugs in a school zone. After the shooting, it is discovered that the police officer committed the crimes of rape and murder, only to escape without anybody being able to identify him at the time. While the police officer is clearly a violent criminal, does anybody argue that the gang member—who had no knowledge of the officer’s crimes or legitimate claims to self-defense for his shooting—should be able to use the prior bad acts of the officer to escape charges?
…of course nobody would argue this, as each crime is separate. A murderer who murders somebody cannot retroactively claim self-defense because he later discovers that the person who he killed did something wrong—at the time of the killing, he had no justification and legal reason to kill the victim.
The second attempts at mitigating the actions of the police came more recently, when the police released the information that Brown tested positive for marijuana at the time of his death. As this test is only accurate within a 40-day window, this positive result proves that Brown smoked or ingested pot sometime in the past 40-days, and may have been stoned at the time of his death. Regardless, this intoxication is irrelevant to the shooting, as pot has depressant effects on the human body that retard aggression rather than induce it.
By portraying Brown as a drug-using robber, the police seek to obfuscate the very real possibility that their officer gunned down an innocent kid for no legal reason after stopping him for jaywalking. Retroactively tarring the victim is an ugly strategy, but it works in many cases (ex. rape cases where rapists justify their actions by saying that the victim was dressed like she was asking for it).
The Michael Brown shooting is not only tragic, but it is indicative of a much larger problem in the United States. The Ferguson Police Department appears to be out of control and a danger to the African American population living in the area. The Brown shooting is only one in a series of questionable police actions in the area.
It was just a couple years ago that Ferguson police officers severely beat a handcuffed African American man named Henry Davis after wrongfully arresting him (he shares a first and last name with a person who had an open warrant), only to charge him with destruction of police property for bleeding on their uniforms. He is currently appealing the conviction, but he had to pay $3000 in fines.
Recently, there are reports of police in the area pointing guns and random protesters marching in support of Brown, illegally arresting reporters, shooting tear gas at cameramen from Al Jazeera, and even threatening to shoot reporters for doing their jobs.
Given the actions of the Ferguson police in response to the protests, it is entirely unsurprising that one of their own would needlessly escalate a simple jaywalking stop to the point where they empty their gun into an unarmed teenager. At every turn, the police have responded with unnecessary aggression and, if they are willing to threaten established reporters with their guns while the eyes of the country are on them, I shudder to think what they are willing to do to poor African Americans when there is no media coverage shining a spotlight on them.
Regardless of whether Officer Wilson is eventually charged and convicted, his actions have illustrated an extremely disturbing problem in our police departments. The Ferguson police are not alone in their militarization and over-aggression, and low-income communities across our country face the threat of police violence on a daily basis.