I've withheld writing about the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. For those distracted by other news stories, Michael Brown was to start college this week. Instead, his parents are planning his funeral. On August 9th, Mr Brown was shot several times and killed by a policeman in Ferguson, a suburb near St Louis, Missouri. The police say the black 18-year-old attacked the officer and tried to grab his gun. A friend who was with Mr Brown says that on the contrary, he was unarmed and had his hands up in the air.
I've withheld writing about it because for the same reason I withheld writing (for a while) about Treyvon Martin: we just don't know enough facts. Right now, we still don't know much. The FBI is investigating the Ferguson shooting, and the Justice Department is looking into the possibility that Mr Brown’s civil rights were violated. Those are good things.
Another eyewitness stepped forward yesterday — Tiffany Mitchell (age 27) — and I found her retelling of the account to be credible and consistent.
According to her, Brown was shot in cold blood, while his hands were raised.
Still, we can't be sure.
But the eyewitness accounts aren't the only thing we can look at. We can get a sense of the truth by looking at the context. And if the past few days are any indication, it seems that the Ferguson MO police department has a tendency to Rambo up unnecessarily. This picture fromj the Times tells it all:
Yesterday, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery was reportedly arrested along with Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post for failing to exit a McDonalds. According to Lowery's Twitter account, the two were "assaulted and arrested" because "officers decided we weren't leaving McDonalds quickly enough, shouldn't have been taping them." No charges were filed.
There are also accounts and video of the Ferguson police dispensing tear gas and shooting rubber bullets at a peaceful (albeit angry) protest. Pointing high-power military rifles at peaceful protesters. Deliberate targeting of journalists with tear gas.
What's going on?
Well, part of the problem is bad training. This is a small town police department, not skilled in dealing with situations like this.
Secondly, the police department has toys, and they are itching to use them. Since 1996, "the Department of Defense has transferred $4.3 billion in military equipment to local and state police through the 1033 program." Then the equipment was intended to help fight the war on drugs. With that much firepower in the hands of local police, it was only a matter of time before they began to be used in such obscene excess against Americans.
Ex police chief Joseph McNamara addressed this dynamic in this op-ed:
Simply put, the police culture in our country has changed. An emphasis on "officer safety" and paramilitary training pervades today's policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn't shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed. Police in large cities formerly carried revolvers holding six .38-caliber rounds. Nowadays, police carry semi-automatic pistols with 16 high-caliber rounds, shotguns and military assault rifles, weapons once relegated to SWAT teams facing extraordinary circumstances. Concern about such firepower in densely populated areas hitting innocent citizens has given way to an attitude that the police are fighting a war against drugs and crime and must be heavily armed.
Yes, police work is dangerous, and the police see a lot of violence. On the other hand, 51 officers were slain in the line of duty last year, out of some 700,000 to 800,000 American cops. That is far fewer than the police fatalities occurring when I patrolled New York's highest crime precincts, when the total number of cops in the country was half that of today. Each of these police deaths and numerous other police injuries is a tragedy and we owe support to those who protect us. On the other hand, this isn't Iraq. The need to give our officers what they require to protect themselves and us has to be balanced against the fact that the fundamental duty of the police is to protect human life and that law officers are only justified in taking a life as a last resort.
"If you build it, they will use it".
If the Ferguson Police department's defense is that its officers showed restraint where Michael Brown is concerned, they have just blown that argument to bits. These guys have no restraint in them, as last night showed.
As the New Yorker correspondent wrote this morning:
What transpired in the streets appeared to be a kind of municipal version of shock and awe; the first wave of flash grenades and tear gas had played as a prelude to the appearance of an unusually large armored vehicle, carrying a military-style rifle mounted on a tripod. The message of all of this was something beyond the mere maintenance of law and order: it’s difficult to imagine how armored officers with what looked like a mobile military sniper’s nest could quell the anxieties of a community outraged by allegations regarding the excessive use of force. It revealed itself as a raw matter of public intimidation.