Tag: Legal procedure

The Ferguson Decision

(Note: As I was writing this, Thrill put up his own post, which I recommend you read as well.)

As you have probably heard, the grand jury refused to indict Officer Darren Wilson tonight. A few thoughts:

First, this is not a surprise. Grand juries are reluctant to indict officers even when there is solid evidence of excessive force. They are reluctant to convict officers when there is clear evidence of excessive force. Three years ago, a group of police officers beat Kelly Thomas to death. He was unarmed but mentally disturbed. On the video tape, he tells the officers he is trying to cooperate, tells them he can’t breath and calls out for his father. He died from the massive injuries inflicted on him that night. The jury acquitted the officers who killed him. Earlier this year, John Crawford was walking around Walmart with a toy gun. Officers, responding to a 911 call, gunned him down almost immediately after seeing him. The jury did not indict.

Keep something in mind, though: it is incredibly rare for a grand jury to not indict. You can read a first-hand account from Ken White, a former prosecutor, here, about how the grand jury process tends to work. What the DA did in this case: not asking the jury to consider a specific charge, was unusual and made it a lot more likely that no true bill would be returned. This is not a degree of skepticism that is applied to average citizens. It is only applied to those on the side of government.

Second, I don’t know what happened in this case and neither does anyone except Officer Wilson. A lot of people have been claiming that Wilson had been “vindicated” by some of the physical evidence (Brown’s DNA in the car, etc.). I don’t see that. Parts of his story check out. But the one part of the story that is most critical — his claim that Michael Brown fled 50 yards down the street, turned and charged into a hail of bullets — is still unproven. Whether Michael Brown was a choirboy or not is irrelevant. What matters is what happened in those critical seconds. And there are conflicting witness accounts of that.

Third, none of this changes the fundamental problems that are still present in Ferguson and in other cities: a gung-ho militarized culture, an extensive use of military-grade weapons, a hatred of sunshine that led to the arrest of two reporters and a ban on air travel that is now known to have been implemented to keep the media out. In the aftermath of the Brown shooting, the police still pointed military weapons at peaceful protesters, still responded to taunts with tear gas, still responded to FOIA requests with a incident report that was essentially blank. If they had wanted to enrage people, they could not have picked a better strategy. And the underlying problem, presented in start detail by Radley Balko, remains.

Fourth, anyone who responds to this incident with violence or looting is not helping. For the most part, these are thugs taking advantage of the situation. They are outnumbered by the peaceful protesters but they will be the face of this. The windows they smash, the cars they burn — that is what people will remember. And that’s a terrible pity.

There are real things that can be done about this. But it will involve a lot of hard work to change our government, our culture and our law enforcement. Is anyone willing to do that?