Thursday, November 27, 2014

Fatal Overreach

Writing and talking about Michael Brown, whom police officer Darren Wilson killed on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, people have a tendency to leave out one of two details: Either that he had just committed a robbery or that he was unarmed. Wilson's critics describe Michael as an unarmed teenager. Wilson's advocates say robbery suspect. It's harder to argue that Michael is an innocent victim if you mention that he was the criminal suspect about whom Darren had just heard from his dispatcher. Saying Darren's innocent is a harder sell if you acknowledge that Michael wasn't carrying a deadly weapon.

Put the two together, and you get "unarmed robbery suspect." Google it and see how few hits you get. There's too much ambiguity in the phrase given the emotional freight that's being conveyed by the preponderance of the commentary about the case. We're naturally tempted to overlook gray areas while using a narrative to prove a larger point. It's especially in the nature of politicians, pundits, and interest groups to turn those caught in tragedies such as Michael's and his grieving family's into object lessons. But Darren Wilson didn't deserve to be indicted because of the existence of institutional racism. By the same token, he doesn't deserve to be absolved just because most police officers do the best they can under difficult conditions while running the risk of being turned into scapegoats for broad inequities and injustices for which virtually none of them is individually responsible.

At the core of our common life is the principle that a person suspected of committing a crime is judged strictly by the facts. In this case, after an a violent struggle over Wilson's weapon in his car, Michael fled and then turned and lunged toward Wilson. Was the officer expected or entitled to shoot him? That would seem to be a question that any number of police academy instructors should be able to answer.  If I were writing the rule book, I'd be inclined to say, "Do whatever you can to avoid discharging your weapon until you see that the suspect is armed." Of course I've never been in such a situation myself. The experts, many of whom have been, disagree with me. Wilson probably shouldn't have confronted Michael while he was still seated in his cruiser. He should've made sure he had access to mace or a Taser before trying to detain Michael.

But once the confrontation reached the street, even the New York Times called Wilson's use of deadly force "standard police procedure." If that's really the case, it's hard to second-guess the Ferguson grand jury. If Wilson had been tried, he probably would've been acquitted. Michael's advocates might have been less outraged by an unfavorable jury verdict than they were by the grand jury's decision. But again, the facts of the case, not the motive of managing public moods and opinions, are supposed to govern whether someone is charged or convicted.

Still, I'm troubled by something that Wilson claimed in his interview with ABC News: That he saw Michael reach inside his waistband. The youngster had no weapon. Pretending to go for one while moving toward an armed officer whom you've already assaulted would be tantamount to committing suicide.

So we should consider another possibility. In the ABC interview, Wilson said he wouldn't have done anything different. It would be reckless to say otherwise with a federal civil rights lawsuit pending. But a normal person would be prone to anguished second thoughts, wondering if his ten shots were justifiable. The St. Louis County DA claims that those who testified that Michael raised his hands over his head in a gesture of surrender were misremembering, their imaginations stimulated by their anguish at the tragedy of his death. It seems more likely that Darren similarly imagined Michael's threatening gesture than that the college-bound young man committed suicide by cop.

By speculating as I have, I'm not accusing Wilson of lying. Just of having a heart in pain.