Since the time that 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot multiple times and killed by Darren Wilson – a white police officer who was never charged, some of the young people in Ferguson, Missouri have been carrying signs in that town that read ‘Black Life Counts Too.’
They also began questioning the powers that be about the way that African Americans are currently treated in Ferguson and calling their attention to the fact that things have been this way for a long time and it is past time for them to change. They say that they are regularly harassed by the police for no valid reason and are treated differently than their white counterparts.
Many in Ferguson have been calling for St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch to charge this officer so that he can be held accountable for his actions and tried by a jury in order to determine his guilt or innocence. Instead, Mr. McCulloch chose to impanel a grand jury to determine whether Officer Wilson should be charged. This marked the beginning of the many problems and missteps that fueled greater mistrust of the Ferguson justice system and widened the gap between some African Americans and white community members.
Because prosecutor McCulloch’s mother, father, uncle and brother had worked for the police department and his father had been killed in the line of duty by an African American man, some community members asked that he step aside and that a special prosecutor be assigned. Their rationale was that he was tied to closely to the police department. On the other side of the issue were those who felt that Mr. McCulloch could be fair and impartial so should not step aside.
Mr. McCulloch also felt that he could be fair and impartial so said that he would stay and do his job. He moved forward with the grand jury proceedings and submitted evidence collected in the case to them. This is where another problem arose that further fueled the mistrust of the system by those who had asked him to step aside. Mr. McCulloch submitted all of the evidence to the grand jury and did not press for an indictment against Officer Wilson or object to Officer Wilson’s intention to testify before the grand jury.
According to lawyers familiar with the grand jury process it is common practice for a prosecutor to seek an indictment and, rather than presenting all evidence, present only evidence that support their reason for seeking that indictment. They also said that it is not common practice for the accused person to appear before the grand jury and it would be up to a regular jury to look at any exculpatory evidence during trial if an indictment were handed down.
Trust was further eroded when Missouri Governor Jay Nixon suggested that Mr. McCulloch should step aside and allow a special prosecutor to handle the case and Mr. McCulloch said that if the governor wanted him to step aside he should ask him to do so. In the wake of this, a video from a robbery of a local market in which a small amount of cigars was taken showed a person who was allegedly Michael Brown, committing that robbery just before he was killed by Officer Wilson. Then other information was leaked piecemeal that was all favorable to Officer Wilson.
Now, more than three months after the shooting, the grand jury has made its decision. Mr. McCulloch announced that decision to the public and in making that announcement still further fanned the flames of the lack of trust in the justice system in Ferguson by African Americans. He gave a 20 minute speech, which sounded like that of a defense attorney, before he announced the decision that everyone already knew was coming; officer Wilson would not be charged with any of the possible charges. In other words, it was a righteous shooting. This is what the Ferguson shooting boiled down to in the language sometimes used by street cops and their superiors.
There is no doubt that policemen throughout the country put their lives on the line everyday to keep us safe. But there is a code among them that they believe helps to keep them functioning as a close-knit cohesive group. Right or wrong, many of them buy into the idea that no cop should ever break that code regardless of how it impacts on the truth.
I think that those who do not buy into this code when it distorts the truth and allows a fellow officer to get away with abuse of their power are, quite simply, afraid of the consequences they will face from other officers if they do break it. It is easy for me to say that they should step up and break this code when necessary because it would make for a better police force and that would build trust in the community. But for those who are cops this is a daunting task because their life often depends on the support of their fellow officers. Break the code and that support might not be there.
All of the missteps cited in this article and the cop code are among the many reasons why I think that Officer Wilson’s guilt or innocence should have been decided in the open by a regular jury instead of by a secretive grand jury that was guided by someone who is inextricably tied to the police force and who became a prosecutor only because he could not become a cop. I also believe that had there been a trial by a regular jury, regardless of the outcome, it could have gone a long way toward building a foundation on which the citizens of Ferguson could have at least begun to try to build some trust in the Ferguson justice system.