Last night was disheartening all around and may have been doomed to be so. Tonight may not be much better, except with more National Guard and fewer buildings to burn.
Coming from a family of civil servants, I have an innate tendency to give police officers the benefit of the doubt in such situations. We ask police to do the work of keeping our streets safe, which can include not a small degree of confrontation and violence. If that's the deal the larger society has made, is it fair to pull the rug out when something goes south, as it inevitably will from time to time?
Trouble is the unwritten agreement I refer to—you protect us from crime and we'll stand by you during a potential prosecution—may not be operable in some parts of American society. It is certainly not how the "deal" is perceived within New York's "stop and frisk" communities or in small towns such as Ferguson where vast racial imbalances exist between the resident population and the police force—and worse, where police departments micro-fund their budgets by daily ticketing and needling of the community they are supposed to protect and serve. Here residents not only don't feel protected by police, they feel persecuted by them.
Unfortunately it is not irrational for them to feel that way. According to an analysis of fatal police shootings, conducted by public interest investigators at ProPublica, African American teens and young men were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts—in fact at 21 times a greater risk. ProPublica reports: "The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police."
That galling discrepancy has played out in recent months since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson on several awful occasions, the worst among them have to be the “BB gun” shootings of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 22-year-old John Crawford, both in Ohio. In both instances police officers were operating on admittedly misleading or incomplete reports from 911 calls and confronting young African American males “armed” with nonlethal BB guns; Crawford’s was off the shelf in a Walmart store. It is deeply troubling to consider that both of these young men would be alive and preparing for a Thanksgiving meal with their families this week had they been white, but there is no getting around that likelihood.
I was hoping Darren Wilson's testimony could clear things up for me as a citizen concerned that an unarmed teenager with his whole life ahead of him could be gunned down in the street. Contradictory accounts from witnesses outside the immediate scuffle zone give Wilson's testimony some credence. He could be, as many protestors believe, a convincing testi-liar or he could be a police officer in a bad situation who made a tough call. That may not be what the crowd is willing to hear today, but it may be closest to the truth.
That doesn’t mean that there is no reason to be concerned about this police killing and others like it. Perhaps Wilson had just cause, perhaps his life was in danger, perhaps he had little other choice but to fire in a split-second decision I will never have to make. But what role did poor training, racial profiling, unspoken—and unknown to the public—rules of policing, even Wilson’s own anger and pride play in his fatal meeting with Michael Brown?
Because of the perplexing manner this grand jury was conducted there will be no trial in St. Louis County that may have helped us answer a few of those questions.