Like so many other Americans, I waited anxiously for a decision from the Missouri grand jury and was not particularly surprised when I learned that Officer Darren Wilson would face no charges in the killing of the unarmed black teen Michael Brown. It is very unusual for police officers to be prosecuted in these circumstances. Nonetheless, while I hesitate to second-guess the grand jury’s review of the evidence, the result troubles me. The tragedy in Ferguson is another in a long list of examples of how guns and deadly violence distort the relationship between citizens and the police in the United States.
As the dean of a law school, I have a professional interest in high-profile events that raise important questions of law and public policy. This particular incident touched me more personally because I am an African-American man with three sons who range in age from 13 to 20, and frankly, because of the alarming frequency of these types of shootings in our country.
At 51, I have reached a point in my life where I have little fear for my personal safety in my interactions with the police, although I am fully aware that minor changes in my behavior or appearance could rob me of this security very quickly. But I worry constantly about my children and other young men and boys like them.
Racial stereotypes, particularly the common tendency in American culture for black men to be perceived as uniquely threatening, are obviously an important source of my fear, but honestly, that is just a part of it. Negative cultural associations with black men are harmful, but what is worse is how quickly they can become deadly.
American society is chillingly comfortable with violence as an effective way to provide safety in threatening situations. We enact “stand-your-ground” and concealed carry laws that make guns ubiquitous in many parts of the country, and we respond to the slaughter of innocents at an elementary school with serious discussions in Congress about the benefit of armed guards among kindergartners.
This casual relationship with guns and gun violence certainly sets us apart from our peer nations. When you add that to our country’s tortured racial history, it is not at all surprising that black men are shot by the police even when, as appears to have been the case in Ferguson, they are running away.
Having lived in Europe for extended periods during my adult life, I know there are a lot of black men and boys in and around London who labor under many of the same stereotypes that exist here in the United States. But there is an important difference in their life experience: It is rare for the police to shoot anyone in Britain, even in teeming, multicultural greater London.
Shortly after the Ferguson shooting, The Economist reported that police in England and Wales fired their weapons a total of four times during the past two years. Four times —meaning in two years they discharged fewer bullets policing 57 million people than were discharged into Michael Brown’s body on one afternoon.
Why do police in the United States shoot their guns so often? Is it because many of them believe that almost anyone they encounter might have a gun and shoot them first?
When compared to its neighboring communities, Ferguson has a fairly low violent crime rate, and crime rates across the country have been dropping for many years. Despite all this, Officer Darren Wilson, who initially was inside of his police cruiser, felt so threatened by a physical interaction with Michael Brown, who was outside of the vehicle, that he shot at him twice. When Brown fled the scene, he chose to give chase and felt threatened enough again to shoot 10 more times. I have to believe that similar situations occur with some frequency in London, but guns are not fired and nobody dies.
Michael Brown’s family, though saddened that no charges would be brought against Officer Wilson, has asked for calm and for people to turn their attention to efforts to encourage changes in how communities are policed. One suggestion the family has put forward is for police officers to use body cameras nationwide.
There is a certain wisdom in that idea — these cameras have been instrumental in revealing many instances of police misconduct and in other cases, vindicating officers’ actions. But, as is often the case in the United States, we reach for a technological solution when we confront an intractable social problem. What really needs to change is our culture’s relationship to guns and deadly violence.