Michael Brown was 18 years old, 6’4″, nearly 300 lbs, and had just robbed a convenience store. He was also unarmed and, when he was shot several times and killed in broad daylight, was most likely approaching Officer Darren Wilson slowly with his hands up.
Eyewitness testimony is often contradictory, but is relatively consistent in this case. Witnesses saw Brown flee from Wilson while being fired upon. Then Brown stopped running, turned, and approached Wilson with his hands extended away from his body. Wilson fired a total of 12 shots, hitting Brown 6 to 8 times, including twice in the head. The last shot entered the top of Brown’s skull and killed him. It was taken at a range of 3 to 6 feet.
No witness has suggested that Brown was rushing at Wilson. Most agree that Brown was approaching slowly. None has corroborated Wilson’s claim that he told Brown to stop. The angle of the two headshots are especially telling. In addition to the fatal shot into the top of Brown’s head, another entered his right eye and continued downward through his jaw and into his collarbone. This is consistent with two very different scenarios: one in which Brown put his head down to charge; and another in which Brown stumbled forward. The latter case seems the most likely, given that it corroborates eyewitness accounts, and that Brown had already been shot four or five times, and had marijuana in his system.
The local prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, convened a grand jury that ultimately declined to indict Officer Wilson for any crime. However McCulloch’s grand jury tactics have been widely criticized as seemingly calculated to not produce an indictment. It has also been noted that this was the sixth time in six occasions that McCulloch failed to obtain an indictment in a police shooting. Perhaps not coincidentally, McCulloch’s father was a cop, killed in the line of duty.
Michael Brown is not a sympathetic victim. Surveillance video taken shortly before the shooting show him robbing a convenience store, using his enormous size in place of a weapon. He goes to the counter and seems to ask for something. He receives a package, which he hands off to his accomplice. Then he leans over the counter, and comes back with several more packages. Without paying, Brown turns to leave. At the shop door, he’s confronted by a clerk, who is a full head shorter than Brown. Brown brusquely pushes him away. When the clerk persists, Brown turns upon him threateningly. The clerk retreats, and Brown and his accomplice depart.
Sympathetic or not, there is reasonable evidence to infer that Michael Brown was the victim of police brutality, in a species of event that has become all-too-common in the US: the killing of an unarmed black man by the police. While local authorities seem to have disposed of the matter, US Attorney General Eric Holder continues his investigation, and it is fair to speculate that there is a significant chance that Officer Wilson will be prosecuted under federal law, which was written in part because some local governments cannot be trusted to render justice in cases involving a white perpetrator and a black victim.
This event is further a subset of an even more common event in the US: homicide by police. Remarkably, there are no official statistics on their frequency. But the best available estimates suggest that about 1000 people are killed by cops in the US each year.
The facts in Ferguson are ugly from every vantage point. Brown was a large, menacing criminal; however the evidence suggests that Officer Wilson, who is also 6’4″, used excessive force, and killed Brown without justification. Time will tell, but the process rarely affords us more than a crude approximation of what really happened.
Our best hope should be that events such as these, because they are so ugly, will force the issue of police brutality, particularly as it bears on race, into the national debate – so the US can begin to reign in its police power, to make it a better public servant, and less of a public menace. The framers and ratifiers of the Bill of Rights decided this issue 200 years ago. By bestowing fully half of the specific rights in the Bill on the accused, they made clear that an unchecked police power poses a far greater threat to liberty and security than do mere criminals.
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