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Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson PD has now resigned. Should he have? He probably had no choice. His life would be in danger every time he set foot outside the station and, he told the media, his fellow officers’ lives, too. However, should he have had to? That’s a different question. The answer is a resounding "no."
Wilson’s probably going to have to enter some form of a personal witness protection program with a degree of secrecy usually accorded to criminals turned witnesses like Sammy "the Bull" Gravano. Think about the message that sends. The tail wags the dog. Unlike Gravano, Wilson was acting within the law, according to a grand jury of his peers. That’s the seminal point. To me, these situations should be all or nothing.
Wilson’s resignation sets a terrible precedent in America – that a police officer found to have done nothing legally wrong by a grand jury of his peers should lose his job and his sense of safety because some people might threaten his life or don’t agree with the system’s findings. That’s just wrong.
As with the military, cops don’t get everything right. Clearly. There are cases of real police abuse against the citizenry. However, the vast majority of law enforcement officers toil away every single day in exceptionally difficult, thankless jobs. They deserve us to back them up when they act within the law because they want to go home at night.
In this case, Officer Wilson was using legal self-defense, according to a grand jury of his peers, which found there wasn’t even probable cause to indict him (that’s a much lower standard, by the way, from the beyond a reasonable doubt that would be required to convict).
I recognize that the Wilson critics are now cherry picking the evidence (remember that?) for this or that; however, the grand jury is the only group of people in American society that saw the entire picture – all of the evidence, human, physical – and also was able to assess and see the demeanor of witnesses under oath (which matters to the ultimate conclusion). This is how our system works.
There is zero evidence here that the grand jury was derelict in its duties and, frankly, I put more stock in the grand jury’s decision-making than in a bunch of people spouting off on social media with agendas who seize on this or that point out of context. It reminds me of the old fable of the blind men each clutching a part of the elephant and thus having their point of views defined by only the part they touched.
As for whether the prosecutor was biased, he shouldn’t be prevented from performing his job duties because his father was killed years ago absent evidence that he has mishandled those duties. What people are citing as evidence of prosecutorial bias could just as easily be seen as the prosecutor bending over backwards to be fair.
For example, people say it’s wrong the prosecutor didn’t guide the grand jury by arguing for a conviction. What they forget is that the prosecutor didn’t have to take this situation to a grand jury at all; he could have just decided not to issue charges on his own. Perhaps he also felt Wilson had acted within the law; he could hardly, then, be expected to argue for an indictment. Which is a reasonable stance based on the totality of the evidence.
Instead, he took the case to the grand jury anyway and presented it in the most neutral of terms – letting them look at absolutely everything he had – and got out of the way of it. If he had presented only some of the evidence, if he had taken a more assertive stance, people would attack him for that. The prosecutor is being trashed for, essentially, not shaping the grand jury or telling it what to do. That’s just bizarre. He is being accused of directing the grand jury by NOT directing it. What?
So what you have here when you boil it down is a local cop who used lawful self-defense against a man who posed a threat to him at that moment, according to a grand jury of his peers. That’s it. People on social media constantly throw out the phrase "unarmed teen" as if that’s relevant under the law. Teens can be dangerous – especially one of the age and size of Michael Brown. Unarmed people can be dangerous, too – if they disarm a cop of their weapon, for example.
There was an infamous case in Waukesha in the 1980s in which a defendant in court disarmed a bailiff of his gun and killed two sheriff’s deputies with it. He was unarmed originally, too. He moved toward the bailiff, and two ended up dead. The preponderance of the evidence seems to show that Brown took a series of actions that Wilson found similarly threatening – he had allegedly robbed a store; he disobeyed the officer’s orders; he grappled with him in his car, perhaps for his gun; he struck him (which is a felony); he charged or moved toward him. People’s chances of being shot by the police decrease exponentially, regardless of race, if they don’t do those things.
It only takes seconds – if that – for a person to cover short distances and reach a cop. One famous study found it takes 1.5 seconds for a person to cover 21 feet. If Brown had reached Wilson, because Wilson had paused, it’s unlikely Brown was planning to shake hands and make nice with Officer Wilson, or, at least, the jury felt Wilson reasonably believed otherwise based on the totality of Brown’s actions (not Brown’s race). The grand jury clearly felt this scenario was backed up by the evidence and/or that there was no way to prove it wasn’t. As for Wilson pursuing Brown, he had an obligation to do so if Brown had just committed a felony by striking a peace officer and robbing a store.
I don’t deny that there are racial inequities in American society. Of course there are. Crime rates, incarceration rates, graduation rates, poverty rates… yes, there are disparities in American society (and in Milwaukee), and we should all care about that. Of course, black lives matter. Those inequities do stem at least in part from racial discrimination; we aren’t that far away from Jim Crow. There are historical reasons that urban communities are still struggling, although, as an educator, I strongly believe that education is the way out. These struggles have created the rage that has fueled the protesters, rage that is real and has antecedents. However, the police did not cause those things. The frustration is misdirected.
It’s even more of a non-sequitur to blame Officer Wilson for all of that and to basically burn him in effigy as atonement for America’s historical or even present wrongs. And that’s what is occurring. Yes, there’s oppression in American society. However, a grand jury has found that Officer Wilson’s actions were not an example of that.
Officers are allowed to use lethal force if they reasonably believe their lives or the lives of others are in danger. They don’t even have to be right; they just have to be reasonable. The law creates some leeway for what happens in split-second judgment calls made under high-pressure.
Over the years, there have been many similar cases. I once reviewed all of the files of police shootings at the Milwaukee courthouse when I was a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter. None, at that time, had resulted in charges (which, admittedly, fostered distrust in the system. The office was then helmed by liberal icon E. Michael McCann). But what I noticed was that some of the sketchiest cases had not generated hue and cry, whereas some of the least sketchy had (for example, a cop who shot a teenager who leveled a firearm at his chest in a drug house). What seemed to be more of a predictor was whether there was a white cop/black suspect dynamic. Frankly, some of the sketchier cases involved black or otherwise non-white cops but didn’t result in as much community upset.
There was a case in Milwaukee years ago where a cop shot a man who turned out to be holding a cassette tape. He thought – reasonably, it was determined after an inquest – that it was a gun, and he went on to serve a long relatively uncontroversial career in local law enforcement. Of course, that was before social media created an endless game of telephone about local controversies in which untruths are passed around so much that people are just certain they are facts (such as arguing that Brown was shot repeatedly in the back).
In the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts." And the grand jury had more of them than we do.
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.