There is no absolute line that separates reasonable force from excessive force on the part of police. But it is likely that an unarmed man, 18-year-old Michael Brown, would be alive today if Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson had followed generally accepted practices. The Ferguson case raises broader issues about race and justice: the officer is white, the suspect black. But first and foremost, it’s a case about the excessive use of force by police, and a reminder why police departments must cultivate community relationships and train officers in appropriate procedures.
Police aren’t perfect. They sometimes misinterpret the movements of suspects and miscalculate the severity of threats. That’s why most police departments adopt a “continuum of force” policy to maximize the likelihood that an officer’s response will be commensurate with a suspect’s actions. Policies differ slightly among departments. But the typical sequence used by police to gain control of a suspect is as follows: voice commands, use of hands, chemical agents, baton, canine, less-than-lethal projectiles, deadly force.
Officer Wilson, though, went first for his gun. He testified before a St. Louis County grand jury that the situation escalated so quickly that chemical spray wasn’t an option. He didn’t carry a Taser — a less lethal electroshock weapon — because of its bulk. The grand jury accepted that Brown was the aggressor throughout the confrontation and that Wilson feared he might be overpowered and lose his gun. According to the grand jurors, that justified the officer’s firing of a dozen rounds. Wilson, therefore, will face no criminal charges in connection with the deadly shooting.
Police officers wield awesome power. In its wisdom, the US Commission on Civil Rights noted in 1981 “that these sweeping powers be subject to constant scrutiny to ensure that they are not abused.” Wilson obviously didn’t wake up with a plan to kill Brown. But proper scrutiny in this case, which includes conflicting witness testimony, would support a lower charge, such as voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. At least the matter would have gone before a trial court and been litigated in the light of day.
The rage and rioting on the streets of Ferguson that occurred in the aftermath of the August shooting quickly reignited this week when the grand jury decision became known. Some misguided demonstrators looted and torched local businesses. But long after these businesses are rebuilt, the nation will still be struggling to come to terms with a justice system that makes it nearly impossible to hold police officers accountable for the use of excessive force.
Justice Department figures show that fewer than 8 percent of excessive force complaints against police officers are sustained by their departments. State and county prosecutors rarely bring such cases before grand juries, and when they do the outcomes are usually similar to the Ferguson case.
The leadership of the Ferguson Police Department and prosecuting attorney’s office share in the responsibility for this tragic situation. Widespread rioting does not occur, as a rule, in communities where the police have made sincere efforts to form trusted partnerships with the public in the interest of reducing crime and social disorder.
Trusted law enforcement agencies exhibit by word and deed that officers will use no more force than is reasonably necessary to protect themselves and the public. In Ferguson, law enforcement officials have failed utterly to make that case.