Most weeks, I sit down to write this Capitol Report the words flow easily. This week is different. For the past six days, the St. Louis region – and our state – has been living a nightmare. As I’ve consumed the news about last Saturday’s tragedy, and its aftermath, I’ve had a difficult time collecting my thoughts. If my five year old heard about this and asked me about it, what would I say?
Like most people, I have mixed feelings of bewilderment, sorrow, disbelief, and anger. Presently, there are more questions than answers:
- How many witnesses were there?
- How many shots were fired? From where were they fired? How many times was the victim shot? And in what sequence?
- Were there any videos of the scene – either from surveillance cameras or cell phones?
- What has the officer said about the event?
- Does the officer have any history of violence or racial animus?
- Witnesses say that the victim, Michael Brown, was shot in the back after running away from the officer. Are there any witnesses who dispute this version of events?
- How long did it take for the local police department to report the shooting to another law enforcement entity for investigation?
Unfortunately, too often, the version one believes turns on your prior life experience. If you’ve suffered or witnessed law enforcement abuse or discrimination, you’re more likely to back the victim. If you haven’t, you’re more inclined to believe the officer.
If it’s a civilian case, your race and personal history color your perspective as well. I cringed last year at the polarizing reaction to the George Zimmerman – Trayvon Martin tragedy. While partisans shouted at each other on cable news, the truth was that there are only two people who knew the whole truth about what happened that night – and one of them was dead. Zimmerman, time has revealed, was not quite the upstanding citizen that some presumed him to be.
In this case, Michael Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, says that Michael and he were unarmed walking across the street when officers cursed at them to get the [expletive] on the sidewalk. He claims that they were polite and told the officers they were almost to their destination and the officers pulled away, only to slam the car in reverse and nearly hit them. Then the officer attempted to open the door, but couldn’t because he was so close to them. Next, Johnson says the officer attacked Michael from inside the vehicle and, during the struggle, fired a shot. Michael turned to run and the officer pursued. While Michael was some distance away from the car – and with his hands raised, the officer then shot him several times.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar gave a different account, stating that Michael had “physically assaulted the police officer” and struggled for the officer’s weapon in the police car. Belmar further said that at least one shot was fired inside the police car and that Michael was eventually shot about 35 feet away from the vehicle.
I have a difficult time believing that the physical altercation between the officer and Michael was completely unprovoked. My life experience isn’t such that I believe a police officer would randomly decide to pick fight on a Saturday afternoon in broad daylight in front of several witnesses. Maybe the officer’s story about a physical confrontation is true. Or maybe Michael and his friend merely returned the officer’s curse words with a few choice words of their own. This inquiry, however, doesn’t end with the question of whether there was provocation. As Kentucky Senator Rand Paul explained Thursday, “If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager, there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off. But, I wouldn’t have expected to be shot.”
There are a few undisputed facts in this case. All agree that Michael was unarmed, a good distance away from the officer’s vehicle when he was shot, and that he was shot multiple times. While I doubt the confrontation was completely unprovoked, even if it was, there’s no circumstance in which deadly force is justified against an unarmed man who is running away or has withdrawn and isn’t an immediate threat to grab a weapon.
As this tragedy unfolds, I have the following thoughts:
First, I pray for Michael’s family as they mourn. All reports indicate that Michael was a “gentle giant” who had worked hard to graduate from high school after falling behind, and was set to attend community college. That all ended in less than two minutes Saturday afternoon.
Second, I’m disappointed with media coverage of protests and public gatherings that focus almost exclusively on violence and looting. There are equally important stories about African-American community leaders in St. Louis urging non-violent protests and, as apparent from pictures I’ve seen, ordinary residents of the area volunteering to help clean up.
Third, it’s vital to review the actions of the Ferguson Police Department and St. Louis County Police Department in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. To avoid even the appearance of bias, I believe any incident of the use of police force, resulting in death or serious injury to a civilian, should be immediately referred to the Highway Patrol or the FBI. By immediately, I mean within minutes of when the officer reports the incident to his own department for internal investigation.
Fourth, justice requires a blind eye to both the status of the accused and the social consequences of finding a lack of fault. A badge is not an unmitigated license for violence, and officers who abuse their powers must be subject to the same laws as everyone else. If the evidence shows there was indeed no justification for the use of deadly force, prosecutors should file the most appropriate and serious charge merited by the facts. But, social unrest is no excuse to “up-charge” a crime. The criminal justice system must focus on individual, fact-specific inquiries without regard to politics or protests. If the evidence shows some currently unknown fact that suggests justification, lesser or no charges should be brought. Ultimately, justice requires a thorough inquiry and trial in a court of law, not public opinion.
On Thursday, President Obama announced that the local United States Attorney was working to move the investigation forward. That means former Cole County Prosecutor and Judge Richard Callahan is involved. Callahan is famous for being fair, independent, hard-nosed, and unafraid. Hopefully local prosecutors will take his counsel when considering the appropriate charge. I can’t think of anyone better suited for the job.