Details of Ferguson, Mo. Police Shooting Released, Some Questions Still Unanswered

Scenes like this caught national attention and led many to question how police respond to emergencies. Image from Jeff Roberson/AP

Scenes like this caught national attention and led many to question how police respond to emergencies. Image from Jeff Roberson/AP

This morning, police in Ferguson, Missouri released the police report detailing the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American whose death Saturday led to the streets of the small St. Louis suburb erupting in protest. Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran of the Ferguson police force, was named as the shooter. Police had initially withheld Wilson’s name out of fear or his safety and that of his family. The police report claims that Brown was a suspect in the robbery of a convenience store.

The circumstances of the shooting are still unclear; police are claiming Brown assaulted Wilson and tried to take his gun, but eyewitnesses report that Brown had his arms in the air and was trying to surrender when he was shot. The FBI and Department of Justice are investigating the case.

The shooting led to protests by Ferguson residents. While most protesters were peaceful, some began to engage in looting, vandalism, and violent confrontations with police. The response by the Ferguson police over the next several nights was mounting escalation, as officers in heavy armor, driving armored cars and carrying military-grade weapons fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators. Many following the news online described the city as a “war zone” and criticized the Ferguson police, accusing them of overreacting.

On Wednesday, the crisis reached its peak as even news reporters who were covering the events were brought into the fray. A camera crew from Al Jazeera was hit with tear gas, and a reporter from the Washington Post was arrested in a local McDonald’s and briefly detained by police.

In response to these events, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced Thursday that the state would be taking over responsibility for crowd control in Ferguson, and put Capt. Ronald Johnson, a highway patrol officer who used to live in the community, in charge of security. Capt. Johnson not only pulled much of the heavy military equipment off the streets and set up a safe zone for the press, he marched with the now-peaceful protesters through the streets.

A marked change in approach. Image from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A marked change in approach. Image from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Though calm appears to be restored in Ferguson as of press time, these recent events have led to a storm of comments and discussion online about what these events mean.

The shooting of Michael Brown has brought attention to the fact that many African-Americans feel they are unfairly singled out by law enforcement due to common stereotypes. Many black parents are telling their children not to wear hoodies, for fear they will look suspicious. The fact that Ferguson is a city whose population is 67% black but whose police force is 94% white is also a topic that has provoked discussion, as people try to figure out how that dichotomy happened.

As defense attorney Mark O’Mara puts it, the tragically common lack of trust between police and the communities they serve can lead to a simple misunderstanding blowing up: “A cop and young black male interact on the street, and both give the other a bit of attitude. The officer gives some attitude because he’s tired of getting attitude from other young men, and the young man gives some attitude because he’s tired of getting attitude from other cops. Now, who’s at fault?”

How is it that these are still problems in 2014, decades after desegregation, when our culture almost universally condemns racism, Barack Obama is our nation’s president and 15% of new marriages are interracial? This commentary in the Washington Post offers one possible answer: that the issue has more to do with economics and class than race, but is that a satisfactory explanation?

Having said all of that, the attorney for Michael Brown’s family has explicitly dismissed the notion that the shooting should be treated as a race issue. The more important issue for them is justice for their son.

The public reaction to the police crackdown has also become a hot topic, as people question how the police responded to the protests. Many have used these events to call into question a program by the Department of Defense to give military-grade weapons to police departments in order to help them deal with terrorists, drug gangs, and extremely violent criminals. Even veterans of the U.S. military have suggested that some of the equipment used in Ferguson were completely unnecessary for a small-town American police force. New attention has been given to author Radley Balko, whose books cover so-called “militarization” in the police. He claims putting combat gear on a police officer changes his or her mindset, and asks if this is something we should be comfortable with as a society. Libertarian politicians have also seized the moment to criticize what they consider to be government overreach.

It is easy to call the police response in Ferguson an overreaction, but former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper warns against taking vital resources away from America’s police forces because they might be abused, saying “For active shooter cases, hostage situations, and school shootings and so forth, you had better be ready to respond to all of that. It’s irresponsible not to.” Indeed, a few years ago, when riots broke out in London and quickly grew out of control, the main criticism was that the British police were too lenient and weren’t doing enough to contain the situation. Where is the balance? How do we get it?

Was Brown involved in the robbery he was suspected of committing? Whose account of the shooting is correct – the police or the eyewitnesses? Are they both partially right? Was the police response to the rioting appropriate or not? Right now, there are no easy answers to these questions.

What is your response to these events? Leave your comments below.