When my fellow critics of Ferguson, Mo., police are reduced to arguing not whether but how hard Michael Brown hit police officer Darren Wilson, I think it is time to rethink what this scandal is all about or, more pointedly, what it should be about.
I was not surprised that a grand jury did not indict police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, but I was disappointed in the way that St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced it. He sounded like he was using the grand jury to provide cover for a controversial decision that he already had made.
A grand jury normally is supposed to review a prosecutor’s evidence to see if the case is worth taking to court, where witnesses and evidence can be cross-examined and both sides can be argued. Instead, McCulloch presented both sides, raised doubts about contradictory eyewitnesses and gave Wilson four hours of unchallenged testimony that amounted to a case against the deceased.
Judging by credible witnesses and a video of his earlier robbery of cigars from a convenience store, Brown was no angel. But neither was the prosecutor in circumventing the full, open and fair trial that Brown’s family, among multitudes of others, wanted to have.
To outsiders, Brown’s symbolic value quickly outgrew his reality, partly because of the excessively secretive way the killing was handled by Ferguson’s police department.
To the left, Brown became a martyr in the fight against institutional racism. To the right, he became a symbol of every grievance conservatives have against liberals and President Barack Obama. To many libertarians, he became a symbol of heavy-handed police practices and distrust of state power. You name it, Brown became a symbol for it.
It is not unfair to say that Brown could still be alive today if he had not responded to Wilson’s questions with punches to Wilson’s face and attempts to grab his gun, according to witnesses.
But in a case already boiling in a pot of national suspicions, McCulloch could have avoided adding fuel to the fire by letting the grand jury decide whether to take the case to trial before essentially trying it in the grand jury.
I also am disappointed that Brown’s symbolic value distracted so many Americans from other, more clear-cut cases of bad policing since Brown’s death that help explain why polls show black Americans to be far more distrustful of police than whites.
Thanks to a dash-cam video recording, we can see why Lance Cpl. Sean Groubert, a South Carolina state trooper, was arrested and charged for shooting Levar Edward Jones, 35, an unarmed black man during a traffic stop for a seatbelt violation in early September.
Jones was shot in the hip by one of four rounds Groubert fired when Jones reached back into his car to retrieve his license – a little too quickly, Groubert said afterward, as he was putting a pained and puzzled Jones into handcuffs.
Fortunately he survived. He was luckier than 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The black youth can be seen in a surveillance video playing with his BB gun in a Cleveland, Ohio, park when a cruiser pulls up and a white police officer Timothy Loehmann, responding to a 911 call, jumps out and within seconds shoots the boy dead. Loehmann and Officer Frank Garmback, who drove the patrol car, were placed on administrative leave.
Why don’t media and activists care as much about black police who shoot white suspects? That question has been raised, particularly by conservative news and social media, after the killing of Dillon Taylor, an unarmed 20-year-old white man outside a convenient store in Salt Lake City. Officer Bron Cruz, identified only as “nonwhite,” has been cleared of possible wrongdoing after an investigation.
The officer’s body camera recorded the entire incident, Police Chief Chris Burbank told reporters, once again demonstrating the value of putting such cameras on all police. I hope Utah officials will release as much information as possible, as quickly as possible. That would avoid the sort of mistakes by Ferguson officials that only raised suspicions and turned a local tragedy into a national crisis.