© Josh Sager – December 2014
The shooting of Michael was, at best, a tragic mistake by a poorly trained and cowardly police officer. At worst, it was a case where a police officer stopped two teens for jaywalking, felt disrespected by one of them and escalated the situation to the point where he ended up firing at a retreating teen, only to shoot him a half dozen times when he tried to give up.
Unfortunately, the true scandal in the Michael Brown case wasn’t in the actual shooting, but what led up to the shooting and what came after. These events represent a perfect storm of civil and legal injustice that illustrates larger problems facing the African American community.
Despite the attempts by the police to promote the video of Michael Brown robbing a local bodega, the evidence shows that Officer Wilson had no knowledge of the incident at the time. He stopped Brown and a friend (Johnson) for the simple reason that they were walking in the street (essentially, jaywalking).
The idea that a jaywalking stop would escalate to dozens of bullets being fired is simply bad policing. No rational person believes that Brown tried to reach into the car to take Wilson’s gun in order to avoid being taken in, and several of the witnesses describe Wilson grabbing Brown and pulling his head into the window.
In all likelihood, Brown recoiled, pulling Wilson’s head into the car door (giving him the slight redness in his face shown in the post-incident photos). Wilson saw this as an assault, overreacted, and started shooting, causing Brown to run. Wilson got out of his car to keep shooting at Brown as he ran, causing Brown to stop, turn around with his hands up, and start walking back—this is when Wilson fired the fatal shots.
This incident is only one of many, where American police jump directly to deadly force and end up killing people for extremely minor crimes. Police are (theoretically) trained to use negotiation, non-lethal force, and a variety of other tools before using their guns, but there are all too many cases where this is ignored. This problem is particularly extreme in American police, and I fear that the only solution is a complete shift in the training and culture of police forces.
The Blue Wall
When Officer Wilson shot Brown, the police at the scene left the body on the street, uncovered, for hours and failed to take even the rudimentary steps towards an investigation. This is indicative of a larger problem, where police assume that other police are in the right and do very little to investigate their own for misconduct.
Wristbands worn by police officers during the civil unrest surrounding the shooting
The Ferguson Police Department’s failures in this incident are numerous and glaring:
First, they failed to take the proper crime scene photos because their camera “ran out of batteries.”
Second, they didn’t immediately take Wilson’s gun and allowed him to not only leave the scene, but change his clothing and destroy blood evidence. This made it impossible to use physical evidence to disprove Wilson’s story (ex. showing that Brown’s finger prints weren’t on the officer’s gun or using blood spatter to determine their orientation in the car).
Third, the police didn’t require Wilson to fill out the mandatory paperwork for officers who were involved in a shooting, nor did they take his statement until he had time to conform his story to be plausible given the evidence.
Fourth, the investigators at the scene didn’t even bother taking notes or canvassing for witnesses. Even after the fact, when the media became involved, the police refused to talk to several witnesses who presented themselves with stories of what happened.
Fifth, the police tried on several occasions to smear Michael Brown by leaking irrelevant, but prejudicial, things that they discovered during the investigation. For example, they released the video of Brown taking cigarillos from the local convenience store, the tox report that showed that Brown smoked pot, and false allegations that he had severely damaged Wilson’s face during the altercation.
In totality, the police officers in this case demonstrated a complete lack of care for the victim and reflexively supported the police officer involved in the shooting—before any evidence was collected, they made up their minds. This “blue wall” is a major reason why bad police officers rarely have to face their actions; they can simply rely on many of their fellow police to reflexively cover for them, even when they kill people under dubious circumstances.
When the media and activist reactions to this shooting forced the Ferguson police to respond to the shooting, their response was tailored to scuttle any chance of Wilson being charged. Instead of simply registering charges through a court, the District Attorney opted to send the charges to a grand jury, presided over by a prosecutor whose family is filled with police and who has a history of letting police off the hook.
During the grand jury, the assistant district attorneys who presented the case gave Wilson a four hour chance to give his side of the story without cross-examination, repeatedly cited Brown’s pot use as a potential factor that could lead him to run through bullets, and gave the jury instructions (that police officers can shoot to kill if they think that a suspect will escape) which were deemed unconstitutional over a decade ago.
A grand jury is simply a forum for the prosecution to present their side of a case, and they can use any evidence that they deem fit, even if it is inadmissible (ex. coerced confessions). There is no defense present and the burden on the state is simply “probable cause.” Because of this, it is virtually impossible for a competent prosecutor to lose such a one-sided debate.
Unfortunately, the Ferguson grand jury was used as a trial by the prosecutors to present Wilson’s side of the story and throw doubt on anybody who contradicted it. This is virtually unprecedented and an abrogation of the responsibly of the district attorneys involved. If I were a member of the Missouri bar, I would immediately begin disbarment proceedings on the three ADAs involved.
If the roles were reversed and a black teen killed a cop, there likely wouldn’t even have been a grand jury, and, if there were, nobody can argue that it would look like this. The prosecutors would do what they always do, and present their case in a favorable light to ensure that the indictment is billed. The fact that such a disparity exists in our courts is indicative of a system of unequal justice, where some people get preferential treatment over others.