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December 1, 2014

No Substitute for Good Judgment

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The only thing obvious about the evening of November 24 in Ferguson, Missouri, was the utter predictability of the outcome. A several-month long grand jury deliberation, the inevitable leaking and speculating about the sealed testimony, and the 24-hour cable news cycle’s thirst for relevant (or even irrelevant) information set the tone.


Then add in the declared state of emergency in the days leading up to the anticipated announcement, and even the build-up to the prosecutor’s formal report of the lack of an indictment, produced the looting, rock-throwing and property destruction that played out in the streets of the St. Louis suburb.


Americans, as a rule, are pretty good at confronting difficult national conversations, but there is still at least one area that seems to bring out our collective lowest common denominator.


We have a problem discussing race. As a general rule, Caucasians tend to avoid discussing race openly, particularly when directly engaging members of the minority community in dialogue. We feel hamstrung by the history of our ancestors, the fact that slavery hangs over every conversation makes us uncomfortable that we might be reminded that our forbearers may have owned their forbearers.


In order to confront the kind of wanton violence and simmering discord that pervades our minority communities, we’re must face this great national discomfort and speak openly about race, justice and responsibility.


In the latest case, a large and physically imposing 18-year-old black man died after being shot multiple times by a white police officer 10 years his senior. The young man had grabbed a handful of cheap cigars from a liquor/convenience store and was walking by an apartment complex. At the same time, the officer, responding to a medical emergency dispatch, noticed Mr. Brown – and his accomplice in the store theft – walking down the middle of a public thoroughfare. He stopped to direct them out of the street.


The officer noticed that the two men fit the description of the store theft perpetrators. As he attempted to communicate with the men, Michael Brown approached the police car and made what ultimately became his fatal mistake. He reached into the police car and struck the officer in the face.


A hand-to-hand struggle ensued, shifting between punches and grappling for the officer’s service weapon. Officer Wilson shot Mr. Brown in the hand, arm and chest. Michael Brown walked away from the vehicle, and Officer Wilson exited to pursue him. Witness testimony offered to the grand jury had Mr. Brown then turn back to the officer and charge him. At this point, Officer Wilson appears to have fired the shots that killed Michael Brown, including a shot into the top of his head. All three autopsies concluded that Mr. Brown likely died from that last shot.


This description of events comes from the released witness testimony before the grand jury, including Officer Wilson and a number of eyewitnesses to the confrontation. In spite of early claims that Mr. Brown had his hands raised in surrender, or that Officer Wilson pursued a fleeing Brown, firing shots into his back, the forensic evidence simply does not support that version of events.


Protestors, who march and chant “hands up, don’t shoot” in protest of Brown’s death, are under the flawed assumption that Michael Brown had decided to surrender to Officer Wilson. Their outrage over his seemingly unnecessary death ignores the fact that Mr. Brown made one terribly flawed decision to reject the warnings to clear the street and instead opted to confront the officer in his patrol vehicle.


Maybe some people will argue that Mr. Brown’s decision arose out of years of suspicion and contempt for law enforcement, fueled by “driving while black,” or other perceived forms of racial harassment. Regardless, the decision to reach into the vehicle and strike the officer changed the dynamic. This was no longer about African-American social injustice; the event was now an assault on a uniformed police officer.


And that’s part of the dynamic about why whites and blacks seem unable to confront race as an issue.


Similarly, why did the Ferguson City Police Department leave Michael Brown’s body lying uncovered in the street for hours following the shooting? Did a forensic investigation require an uncovered body? Since that doesn’t seem to be the case anywhere else in the world, why in Ferguson – and on that day?


Also, what role does the militarism of modern law enforcement play in the escalation of the events on the street in primarily minority communities? Residents see armored trucks, fully automatic weapons and forces clad head-to-toe in blacked out and armored clothing – a kind-of occupying force that invades their streets and communicates via bullhorn. Is that the most effective way to confront a crowd mostly bent on gathering to peacefully express their distrust of their government?


We ought to outfit all police officers with body cameras and microphones. Every single one. If Fraternal Orders of Police object, it’s because they’re trying to protect bad actors in their ranks from eventual exposure. Too bad. It just seems logical that with the footage from a body camera, communities have nothing to fear from the truth.


Until the leaders of the minority community are prepared to address the lack of individual responsibility fostered by a culture of dependence and a lack of family structures and values, and until government and law enforcement leaders can develop techniques and tactics that accommodate legal protests and provide methods of accurately documenting what transpired in bad interactions with citizens, we appear fated to repeat these tragic situations.


Just last weekend, another black child was shot and killed by police when he reached into his waistband and pulled out what appeared to be a 9mm handgun. The reaction on the part of the police was instantaneous, given that they had seconds to decide. The “gun” turned out to be a toy, and one where the mandatory, highly visible, orange plastic ring around the mouth of the barrel had been removed. That ring is intended to show a police officer that they’re staring down the barrel of a toy, not the real deal.


Some say the police should “shoot to wound,” but police are taught that if the weapon is coming out of the holster, and if it’s pointed at a human form, then the officer has already decided that the threat is escalating toward a shot. There is just no way that a cop, including one with decades of experience, has the ability to discern whether someone going for a gun intends to use it to kill the officer (s). Training kicks in, and a tragedy results. A body camera would have shown us that tragic chain of events in this case as well as in Ferguson.


Providing the latest audio-visual technology to street cops makes sense. That’s especially true if – as a nation – we’re going to continue to avoid dealing with the decay of our society in areas where poverty, illegal drugs and bad choices run rampant. If parents/guardians and community leaders in these areas can’t solve the underlying problems, at least we can maintain an accurate record of the tragic outcomes as a substitute for bad judgment.


And that just seems like a very sad conclusion.


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