There is shock across the country — especially in communities of color — that a Missouri grand jury chose on Monday not to bring charges against Darren Wilson, a white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., in August. But close observers of law enforcement might have predicted this outcome. Prosecutors, by and large, give police officers the benefit of the doubt in deadly force cases due to the unpredictable nature of law enforcement. And even when district attorneys bring a police case before a grand jury, jurors themselves are often loath to hand up indictments against sworn law officers, whom they view as sympathetic figures of authority.
The pursuit of justice in the shooting death of Michael Brown must continue. The explanation given by prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch left one gaping question: Why would an officer trained to use the minimal amount of force to gain control of a situation fire 12 times at an unarmed suspect? A jury trial was the proper venue to decide the basic contradictions in this case. Lawyers for Brown’s family say the teenager was trying to surrender when the officer shot him. Wilson’s supporters say he shot Brown in self-defense. Despite the tortuous efforts of McCulloch to convince the public that the grand jury settled this matter, in the minds of many it remains unresolved. That will not be resolved no matter how many people take to the streets of Ferguson to protest the grand jury’s decision — peacefully or violently.
People around the country are rightly condemning the seeming impunity of police officers. But such events also feed into the violent ideologies of those who prefer the immediacy of street justice to the often drawn-out justice system. Both types of protesters have been found in the streets of Ferguson. And it is essential that the police forces sworn to protect the public distinguish between the two. In August, the police responded in a highly militaristic, undifferentiated fashion to the demonstrations following the shooting of Brown. Instead of de-escalating the situation, law enforcement exacerbated it.
The St. Louis County grand jury’s decision does not necessarily close this case, nor should it. Federal investigators, who have conducted their own probe into the deadly shooting of Brown, could begin the painstaking work needed to mount a civil rights prosecution against the officer. And Brown’s family is free to sue the officer for wrongful death in a civil action.
Perhaps none of these legal actions would prove as cathartic as a grand jury indictment and a guilty verdict . But, in the wake of the grand jury decision Monday, they represent the best chance to bring this case to a just resolution.