From the moment that Michael Brown was gunned down by Officer Darren Wilson, it’s been virtually impossible to get credible and reliable information about what actually happened August 9, 2014 on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, MO. That came to an end on Wednesday, March 4, 2015 when the U.S. Department of Justice issued “Department of Justice Report Regarding the Criminal Investigation into the Shooting Death of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson.”
Anything resembling the truth as to what happened on August 9 required a remarkable amount of separating the wheat from the chaff. Television coverage was too erratic and frantic to provide this. Print reporters offered on-site longevity, but they did not have subpoena power to hear from reluctant participants and observers. Whatever investigation the Ferguson Police Department might have provided has not seen the light of day. And St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s grandjury offered only a scattered written record with no interpretat,ion.
Thankfully, Eric Holder and the DOJ chose to do their own investigation. This is a report that I can trust. Why? Because Eric Holder is someone who reliably has the best interests of the citizens of Ferguson and other Americans like them in mind. American history is replete with attorneys general who saw their primary goal as one to protect the administration for which they worked and to not challenge the status quo. Consider AG John Mitchell with Richard Nixon or Alberto Gonzales with George W. Bush.
Fast-forward to 2014. Ferguson happened, and we happen to have an African-American president who has appointed an African-American Attorney General. This does not automatically mean there will be justice, but considering who Barack Obama and Eric Holder are and what they have stated on record about race relations, the odds are high that the DOJ report would truly address the issues at hand rather than papering over some unpleasant facts.
Yet for me, it was a “be careful for what you ask” moment. McCullough’s grand jury seemed, from the beginning, not to be inclined to issue an indictment against Wilson. I expected that the Justice Department investigation would clearly conclude what I wanted to believe, that Darren Wilson had acted improperly and possibly willfully killed Michael Brown. Not only would I feel vindication from this, but so would most Ferguson protestors, most civil rights advocates in the United States, and in fact most “sound-thinking” people in the U.S., at least as I saw it.
Well, now is the time when I have to eat my words. Most everything that I have said over the past seven months about how Michael Brown was an innocent victim of Darren Wilson’s aggressiveness and bull-headedness was wrong.
If I believed that a report from Eric Holder’s Justice Department would shed accurate light on the situation, then I had to accept the outcome of the study, regardless of what it was. In this case, the Justice Department studied and re-studied the occurrences in Ferguson on August 9 and they stated in the summary conclusion on Page 5 of the 86-page report:
Based on this investigation, the Department has concluded that Darren Wilson’s actions do not constitute prosecutable violations under the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute, 18 U.S.C. § 242, which prohibits uses of deadly force that are “objectively unreasonable,” as defined by the United States Supreme Court. The evidence, when viewed as a whole, does not support the conclusion that Wilson’s uses of deadly force were “objectively unreasonable” under the Supreme Court’s definition. Accordingly, under the governing federal law and relevant standards set forth in the USAM, it is not appropriate to present this matter to a federal grand jury for indictment, and it should therefore be closed without prosecution.
The report methodically examined what happened the day that Officer Wilson shot the unarmed Michael Brown. Getting a clear picture was an extremely difficult task, because forensic evidence was not completely clear and the recollections of dozens of witnesses often contracted one another. In fact many witnesses contradicted themselves in testimony with the St. Louis County Police Department, the F.B.I. and the County Grand Jury. The Justice Department sifted through the information and categorized each piece of forensic evidence as well as each statement by each witness. They essentially established a “credibility scale,” determining which evidence seemed most logical and had the greatest amount of corroboration from other reliable sources.
The purpose of the Justice Department’s investigation was to determine if there was sufficient evidence to try Officer Darren Wilson in a criminal court for the shooting. The fact that Wilson is a police officer raised the bar of evidence that was necessary for proof.
To prove a violation of Section 242, the government must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) that the defendant was acting under color of law [i.e. had a legal right to do what he did], (2) that he deprived a victim of a right protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States, (3) that he acted willfully, and (4) that the deprivation resulted in bodily injury and/or death. There is no dispute that Wilson, who was on duty and working as a patrol officer for the FPD, acted under the color of law when he shot Brown, or that the shots resulted in Brown’s death. The determination of whether criminal prosecution is appropriate rests on whether there is sufficient evidence to establish that any of the shots fired by Wilson were unreasonable, as defined under federal law, given the facts known to Wilson at the time, and if so, whether Wilson fired the shots with the requisite “willful” criminal intent.
A thorough reading of the report shows that for the most part, Office Darren Wilson’s actions were guided by (a) a desire to initially question Michael Brown about an earlier robbery at the Ferguson Market, and (b) a desire to protect his life and that of others from actions taken by Michael Brown once a struggle began. The report clearly shows how Brown aggressively approached Wilson’s van and wrestled with the officer for his gun. Wilson finally gained control and shot Brown in the thumb. Brown ran off, about 180 feet, and while Wilson chased him, Wilson did not fire at him (forensic evidence confirms this). Brown then turned around and faced Wilson. He did not raise his arms to surrender and did not say “Don’t shoot.” Instead, he progressively moved closer and closer to Wilson, not responding to Wilson’s command to stop. Brown eventually clenched at least one fist and ran forcefully towards Wilson. Wilson, who did not have access to his Taser, fired several shots before killing Brown with his final shot, which hit Brown in the crown of his head and fatally wounded him.
As previously stated, I had hoped that the Justice Department report would have found that there was sufficient evidence to indict Darren Wilson. But the report didn’t and I, along with many others whom I know, need to accept this reality.
The fact that what happened on Canfield Avenue on August 9, 2014 may not have been what many of us came to believe does not mean that the protests, the press coverage, and the national discussion since has been in vain. Because the Ferguson Police Department and the St. Louis County grand jury did such a terrible job of quickly getting to the bottom of what happened, millions of people were mobilized to one degree or another to rekindle the civil rights movement that seemed to be slumbering, particularly after the election of our first African-American president. Had Officer Wilson given an honest statement to the Ferguson Police Department, and had the FPD released it immediately in a transparent fashion, this tragedy may have faded from the news in a matter of weeks. But that is not what happened.
The perception that Wilson acted in a highly improper fashion, coupled with all that we now know about the massive dysfunction of the city of Ferguson and many other North County communities, led the Justice Department under Eric Holder to investigate. While one report did not find cause to criminally prosecute Darren Wilson, the other report (called Ferguson Police Department Report), which may be far more long-lasting, found “a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct within the Ferguson Police Department that violates the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and federal statutory law,”
What is important now is that we make sure that to the best of our abilities we get our facts straight and that we look toward solutions in the spirit of Barack Obama’s and Eric Holder’s views on improving race relations, economic fairness, and responsive government. We may not always be so fortunate to have such a president and Attorney-General.