Ferguson, Missouri, is a town of some 21, 000 citizens, in St. Louis County Missouri, basically a suburb of St. Louis. The 2010 census revealed that 67% of the town is African-American, and 29% is white/Caucasian. However, the town employs 53 police officers, 3 of whom are black. The mayor is white, as are 5 of its 6 city council members. The chief of police is likewise white. But a state report on racial profiling found that 86% of traffic stops were of black drivers, and that 92% of arrests were of black suspects. A lot of news stories about the town have, with justification apparently, called it a ‘powder keg.’
And on Saturday, an unarmed 18 year old black kid named Michael Brown was shot and killed by police. Witnesses say his hands were up and clearly visible when he was shot. Here’s a link to the NBC news story about the shooting. Meanwhile, the streets of Ferguson are clogged with protestors. Tear gas has been used to dispel protestors, and some looters have been arrested. Three national news reporters have been arrested. A group called The Ad Hoc Committee for Justice on Behalf of Michael Brown has made four demands. The first of those demands is that the officer who shot Brown be publicly identified and arrested for murder.
The hackers’ collective, Anonymous, has released this video on YouTube. A few hours ago, they released the name of the Ferguson police officer who they claim was the shooter. They also hacked into the Ferguson police department website. Ferguson authorities, though, say the name Anonymous released is wrong; that that officer thus identified was not the shooter.
The Chief of Ferguson police, Thomas Jackson, is a pleasant-seeming round-faced man, who has been fairly unshakable so far in press conferences. He comes across as reasonable and mild. He says he’s concerned about race relations in the town, and that he has made healing those divisions his highest priority as police chief. But the police presence clearly visible in all the national news stories about the Ferguson protests is anything but benign. We’re seeing SWAT teams, with full military style regalia, in armored cars. Gunners on rooftops with machine guns. It’s difficult not to conclude that the police have badly overreacted to peaceful protests, and that fear is driving events on both sides.
By all accounts, Michael Brown was a big, cheerful kid. He graduated from high school this summer, and was looking forward to college this fall. He wanted to be a heating and air conditioning engineer. He was cheerful, outgoing, liked to rap, liked to make people laugh. What a terrible loss, to his family, to his friends, to his community, to our country.
I don’t know anything more about this story than what I’ve read in the news, seen on TV, or read on the internet. I do have a few thoughts.
It doesn’t really matter what was said or done by Brown or by his friend. There’s talk of a confrontation. I wasn’t there. Brown’s friend tells a different story than the police have been telling, but we only have partial information from all sources. But this kid should never have been shot. I can’t see any justification for it, based on preliminary news reports. Even if we believe the most pro-police news stories that have emerged, this was a shooting that should never have occurred.
The officer in question, therefore, should have been arrested and charged with this homicide. That doesn’t mean that he should be considered a murderer. There are any number of lesser charges that could be filed, and I don’t doubt that prosecutors are already sifting through the accounts that have been given. And I fully understand that reluctance of Ferguson police to release the name of the shooter. But he could and should be held in protective custody, pending formal charges being filed. It also appears that Anonymous’ videos have hardened police resolve. A Ferguson police spokesperson said that the hackers’ threats ‘prompted their decision’ not to release the officer’s name.
People in authority hate, absolutely hate having their authority challenged. One of the reporters who was arrested said the police officers asked him to leave a restaurant where he was filing a story. When he didn’t leave quickly enough, they slammed his head against a soda dispenser. There’s no justification for that kind of police behavior. Others have been arrested for taking photos of officers. But taking a photo is not only legal, it’s constitutionally protected. I understand that cops take huge amounts of crap in their jobs, and that mouthy civilians have to be very high on their lists of annoyances. But, at least in Ferguson, and elsewhere, police training needs to be substantially revamped. Whatever happened to community based policing, for example?
I really do think, however, that it’s time for some cooler heads to prevail. It’s time to get the St. Louis SWAT teams out of there, perhaps by sending in the National Guard. Perhaps it’s time to turn over the investigation to state authorities. President Obama has called for ‘calm;’ that’s obviously welcome. But I’m also glad he didn’t join Ferguson by overreacting.
Still, this is a terrible situation, and one that plays itself out nationally. I have good friends who are police officers, and I know how tough their jobs are. Go on YouTube, and you can find dozens of videos showing officers using excessive force. But this is a big country. If the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project’s statistics can be trusted, there are around 4, 000 incidences of police violent misconduct in our country annually. Any good cop will tell you that that’s 4,000 too many. But in a nation of 300,000,000, it’s a fairly negligible number. We can and should do better, but let’s not also overreact, or think the problem is bigger than it probably is.
But then, I’m a middle aged, middle class white guy. Police misconduct doesn’t affect me much. If I were black, I’d probably feel very differently, and with good cause.