What To Make Of Ferguson? Ctd

Some remaining thoughts from readers regarding the grand jury decision and aftermath:

Your correspondent compared Ferguson to Benghazi:

There’s a narrative of racist-white-cop-kills-harmless-black-kid, and no matter what uncomfortable fact intrudes, like that so many “witnesses” admitted they didn’t actually see what they told the media they saw, the narrative must go on. Because racism.

You know, s/he’s not entirely wrong. But even if Micheal Brown had been holding an AR-15 in each hand when he was shot, everything that we’ve been talking about in the aftermath of his death about the systemic corruption, violence, impunity – and yes, institutional racism – of policing and incarceration in this country would still be true. The ugly, simple truth is that very few people will rally against injustice in the abstract, regardless of the scale. We just aren’t wired for that kind of empathy. (Stalin was right about tragedies and statistics.)  So is it a mistake to try to leverage a particular case to bring the bigger issues to the fore? It certainly is risky, and I think we are seeing why right now. But if there is a better way to go about it, I don’t think we’ve seen it yet.

Another would seem to concur:

I agree with your take on Ferguson. If your objective is to make an example of how police Protesters block interstate lanes in Oakland after Ferguson Grand Jury decisioninteract with young men of color, this isn’t a perfect case. It’s just attracted the most attention. And the response is making it worse. But this is where we are, with the incompetence and violence and rioting and everything. And every day that sees a riot, we get a little bit closer to forgetting Michael Brown.

Taking in the non-indictment and aftermath of the Brown tragedy, I think I understand a little bit more about your perspective on Matthew Shepard. One thing you can’t say about Shepard is that his life was wasted. He just wasn’t the person who took advantage of it. His parents and advocates of gay rights and hate crimes legislation – good or bad – made sure his name would ring out after he died. They took an imperfect case and made it count.

I want to remember Michael Brown as the namesake of laws around the country that require all police to wear body cameras. “Michael’s Law” has a nice ring to it.

Another goes after his fellow left-liberals:

When I listen to the commentary on the left, I can’t help hearing benevolent racism.

Because they do not seem inclined to accept that Michael Brown had the capacity to rise above the difficult socioeconomic disadvantages in his life. Because if they did have that faith in him, they would find fault with some incredibly bad decisions he made leading up to the altercation: 1) Getting super-high, 2) Stealing the cigars, 3) Walking down the middle of the street after commission of a crime, 4) Charging a police car, 5) Assaulting a police officer, 6) Evading arrest, 7) Turning back toward the police officer instead of going to the ground.

Did he deserve to die for this? Hell no! But nor is he the squeaky-clean victim of circumstance he is to much of the left. Yes, his low-income status, the racial disparities between the police and the neighborhoods, the failure of our education system, and on and on. There are structural factors that undoubtedly played a major role in this tragedy. But sending Darren Wilson to prison does not resolve any of those issues, nor does it provide “justice” to Brown’s family, despite the family’s claims to the contrary.

Yes, it’s damned hard to be black in America, today or any day. Or Hispanic. Or a woman. Or gay. But if we absolve disadvantaged groups of personal responsibility when something bad happens, how can we credit them with playing a role in their successes? We liberals need to be mindful of dehumanizing, demoralizing and frankly racist assumptions that inform our opinions.

An expert reflects on the previous commentary from readers:

Greetings from a charter subscriber, and many thanks for your wonderful blog.  A number of your readers have already addressed these points, but I’d like to add my perspective on the no true bill returned by the grand jury against Darren Wilson.

I have never served as a police officer, but I am a lawyer and have served as an FBI agent for 25 years.  Throughout my career I have worked extensively with various state and municipal police agencies.  I have undergone training that is no doubt similar to (though, because the federal government has a greater training budget than most municipal agencies, probably more extensive than) that received by Officer Wilson.  One of your other readers correctly pointed out that all law enforcement officers, when confronted with a situation in which deadly force is justified, are trained to shoot until the threat is eliminated.  That’s the precise language used in my training:  shoot to eliminate the threat.  If Officer Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown, he was justified to shoot him as many times as it took to eliminate him as a threat (whether he was in fact a threat is a question for a jury to decide, typically).

Your reader was also accurate in his description of the 1986 FBI Miami shootout, which had a tremendous impact on not only how FBI agents are armed and trained, but also impacted the arming and training of law enforcement officers throughout the country.  The FBI, specifically, adopted the short lived 10 mm pistol, and eventually the .40 caliber pistol, to give their agents more “stopping power” when confronted with deadly force situations.

With regard to the rarity of grand juries issuing no true bills, one of your other readers has already pointed out that prosecutors typically self-select  the strongest cases for presentation, which in part accounts for the cited statistics.  It’s also important to note that the statistics cited were for federal grand juries, which tend to be even more selective regarding case presentation than state grand juries.  In the federal system, with which I am very familiar, prosecutors have absolute discretion over what cases they present to the grand jury, and typically present only those of which they are certain to obtain an indictment.  Several states (and I believe Missouri is one, though I may be mistaken) mandate that all officer involved shootings be presented to a grand jury (a friend of mine went through this following his killing of an armed subject; the shooting was justified and the grand jury returned no true bill).  I’d imagine the return of no true bills before state grand juries aren’t quite as rare as they are in the federal system.

While the overwhelming majority of police officers I know are dedicated, competent and moral individuals, there is a systemic problem with how we police racially diverse urban areas. There is an “us against them” attitude among the officers I’ve known regarding significant numbers of the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect.  It is not, strictly speaking, a racial issue; some of the officers I’ve known with the greatest disdain for racial and ethnic minority communities are themselves members of those minority groups.  It is, I believe, more a function of the militarization of our police – not militarization in the sense of using tanks or other military hardware (though that is a problem), but rather the adoption of a military, or warrior, mindset.

Walk into the squad area of any police station or precinct in the country and you’re likely to see inspirational posters espousing the warrior ethos.  Many officers, including ones I admire in many ways, buy into this and believe they are going into combat each time they hit the street.  This has proved beneficial for police officers in general:  line-of-duty deaths have steadily declined over the past decades, and part of this is likely due to increased awareness of the dangers of their job that is, at least in part, attributable to the adoption of this mindset.  But it has come at great cost to the communities they police.

One more reader:

Apologies if this seems too obvious to mention, but the pieces and comments I’ve read regarding Michael Brown all suffer from the same error. People are trying to look through both ends of the telescope.  On the one hand, we know that cop-on-black violence is a problem that raises profound questions of racial and economic justice.  On the other hand, we are trying to deal with the facts and the system of evidence that the law requires.  It seems that people who say, “Well, the evidence does seem to suggest that the officer acted reasonably, given what we’re now learning” are being accused, either implicitly or explicitly, of denying that our nation has a systemic problem with these kinds of issues generally.

We need to be able to say that even if we have a systemic problem in our economy and culture that produces a lot of cases of unjust and tragic violence against black men (amongst others), we still may conclude in any given case that the violence was justified.  Or, looked at in the other direction: if we conclude (and we may not) that officer Wilson’s use of violence was justified, we can still conclude that our nation has a very serious problem that leads law enforcement to give violent expression to an economic and cultural system that is racially biased and unjust and that we have to change that system.

Those who feel that they have no way to express their outrage and who are protesting violently as a result, and those who are online decrying the injustice in this particular legal case have something in common: they are looking at the evidence of this case through the lens of larger questions of race and justice.  That lens distorts the evidence in any given case.

(Photo: Thousands of people protesting the grand jury’s decision about the fatal police shooting of black 18-year old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri march onto the lanes of Interstate 580 after blocking the traffic for several hours near Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland, California on November 24, 2014. By Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)