After the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a quick, high-profile round of on-camera media interviews by Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson helped establish the public narrative that officer Darren Wilson had stopped Brown and Johnson for no better reason than walking in the street, and that a peaceable Brown had been gunned down while trying to surrender with his hands in the air. To put it mildly, several key elements in this account were not well supported by the investigations later conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice and others, and Johnson’s version of events was further put in shadow by the revelation that before the police stop he had accompanied Brown into a convenience store where Brown committed a strong-arm robbery of cigars later handed off to Johnson. At any event, Johnson has now filed a lawsuit against the town and against Wilson for being stopped and for the subsequent gunfire: Johnson wasn’t hit, but says he was endangered by the shots. [NBC News] Meanwhile, the chairman of the large law firm of Winston & Strawn will receive $1,300 an hour to represent Ferguson in the Justice Department probe. [Debra Cassens Weiss, ABA Journal]
Courageous “I was wrong” column by Jonathan Capehart in the Washington Post on having prejudged the Brown-Wilson confrontation in Ferguson, Mo.:
But this month, the Justice Department released two must-read investigations connected to the killing of Brown that filled in blanks, corrected the record and brought sunlight to dark places by revealing ugly practices that institutionalized racism and hardship. They have also forced me to deal with two uncomfortable truths: Brown never surrendered with his hands up, and Wilson was justified in shooting Brown. …
…it is imperative that we continue marching for and giving voice to those killed in racially charged incidents at the hands of police and others. But we must never allow ourselves to march under the banner of a false narrative on behalf of someone who would otherwise offend our sense of right and wrong. And when we discover that we have, we must acknowledge it, admit our error and keep on marching. That’s what I’ve done here.
Meanwhile, in recent days, writers at National Review and Red State have taken a look at DoJ’s Ferguson report (our earlier post on it) and say conservatives should be in the forefront of criticizing and calling for reform of the police and municipal-court abuses it exposes. [summarized by Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic; see also Charles Cooke, National Review, on race and conservatives]
Left and right admitting that the other side had a point on some aspects of Ferguson? It seems as unlikely yet welcome as the sun coming out to shine after this past Northeastern winter.
Confirming expectations, the U.S. Department of Justice has announced that it will not file federal civil rights charges against the police officer who shot Michael Brown following an altercation on the streets of Ferguson, Mo. [CBS] Contrary to a visual theme repeated before countless news cameras through weeks of protests, “no, Michael Brown’s hands probably were not up” at the time of the shooting [Wesley Lowery, Washington Post] In the end, “Hands Up — Don’t Shoot” 2014’s iconic protest gesture, was founded in the self-serving, oft-repeated eyewitness account of Brown chum/soon-established-robbery-accomplice Dorrian Johnson. And he was credible why?
At the same time, the report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Justice makes clear (AP, WaPo) that the Ferguson, Mo. police department was up to its hip in bad practices, ranging from the rights-violative (knowingly baseless arrests and stops, arresting persons for recording police actions) to the cynical (“revenue policing” aimed at squeezing money out of the populace over subjective/petty offenses that include “manner of walking.”)
Whether these bad local police practices are a suitable subject for federal oversight, and where the actually existing U.S. Department of Justice gets off complaining about high-handed and revenue-driven law enforcement given its own sorry track record, are other questions. But any view of Ferguson’s troubles in the back-view mirror should now acknowledge two things: 1) many people rushed to assume Officer Darren Wilson’s guilt who should have known better; 2) even so, there was much to protest in Ferguson law enforcement. (cross-posted, with a new concluding paragraph, at Cato at Liberty).
More links of interest: Don’t miss Conor Friedersdorf’s “parade of horrors” summary of the worst police abuses bared in the DoJ report [The Atlantic]; Alex Tabarrok on the Ferguson “kleptocracy” [Marginal Revolution] and Stephen Carter on “Ferguson and Its Money-Hungry Police” [Bloomberg View]; Scott Greenfield on whether or why to trust in the USDOJ.
Quoted in USA Today and other papers on what can be the very long road back once a reputation for riots tanks a community’s business climate and property values. [Yamiche Alcindor, USA Today]
PBS NewsHour “read and analyzed more than 500 pages of witness testimony and compared each statement to those given by [officer Darren] Wilson,” pulling together the results in this chart, which illuminates points where the witness testimony tended to help Wilson’s defense and where it did not; perhaps most surprising is how many questions he was apparently not asked. Prosecutor Robert McCullough managed the grand jury proceedings almost in the manner of a defense lawyer for the man facing charges, a strategy extremely unlikely to be repeated in the great majority of grand jury proceedings where the accused is not a police officer [Jacob Sullum] And Conor Friedersdorf notes that if you were looking for poster cases of wrongful use of lethal force for which police were not held accountable — even when there was video or other strong documentary evidence — many other cases would stand higher on the list than that of Michael Brown.
- Why none of the major methods for addressing claims of police excessive force — grand juries/prosecution, internal investigations, civil suits, personnel disciplinary procedures, civilian review boards, federal oversight — work very well, and what we may want to consider instead [Chase Madar, The Nation]
- “Rand Paul Reacts to Ferguson: Reform Criminal Justice System, Petty Fines” [Robby Soave, Reason, quotes me] Incidentally, the Cato Institute has been working on police misconduct issues for more than 15 years [Cato Policy Report]
- “As a front-line means of regulating lethal force, grand juries – which are secret, remote from the truth-finding of an adversary process, and dependent on prosecutors’ guidance – do not command broad public confidence.” [my brief reaction statement, posted at Cato] “How the Ferguson grand jury process works” [Kimberly Kindy, Washington Post] “in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment.” [Ben Casselman, Five Thirty-Eight] Cato survey a few years back found only 7 percent of excessive force allegations against police resulted in indictments, 3 percent in convictions [Tim Fernholz, Quartz]
- “What we know about who police kill in America” [Dara Lind, Vox]
- “Anytime I’m involved in an officer involved shooting… it is always listed during my initial investigation as an assault on law enforcement” [Kevin Underhill/Lowering the Bar, who also dissected the grand jury report on Twitter] Journalists and investigators begin digging through the many volumes of transcripts and testimony released following the grand jury action [NPR on Officer Wilson’s testimony] Eyewitness testimony pointed various ways [Conor Friedersdorf]
- Listen: Tuesday morning’s Diane Rehm show where I joined a panel discussing the Ferguson grand jury outcome, or a highlight portion;
- “How Police Unions Stopped Congress From ‘Militarization’ Reform” [Dave Weigel, Bloomberg] Reform-blocking role of police unions part of wider, systemic problems [Ed Krayewski, Reason]
As I and many other writers have noted lately, the town of Ferguson like several nearby suburbs in St. Louis County has a reputation for raising revenue through aggressive use of tickets for minor traffic and vehicle infractions, a practice that many suspect weighs more heavily on poorer and outsider groups. Blogger Coyote, who now lives in Arizona, has some reflections about police practice in that state and also adds this recollection from an earlier stint in Missouri:
I worked in the Emerson Electric headquarters for a couple of years, which ironically is located in one corner of Ferguson. One of the unwritten bennies of working there was the in house legal staff. It was important to make a friend there early. In Missouri they had some bizarre law where one could convert a moving violation to a non-moving violation. A fee still has to be paid, but you avoid points on your license that raises insurance costs (and life insurance costs, I found out recently). All of us were constantly hitting up the in-house legal staff to do this magic for us. I am pretty sure most of the residents of Ferguson do not have this same opportunity.
Race is one reason for constant police hassle in towns like Ferguson. Revenue is another. In a Cato post yesterday, I note that court fees are the second biggest source of revenue for the small city, and that the Ferguson municipal court last year issued three arrest warrants and presided over 1.5 cases per household. As a result, many residents of the town “wind up interacting constantly with law enforcement because of a culture of petty fines” — enough to make for tense relations between the community and the police even aside from the racial divide. Similarly: Alex Tabarrok, who wrote on related issues two years ago. More: Amy Alkon; Brian Doherty at Reason says his colleague Scott Shackford reaches a lower estimate of the importance of fines in the Ferguson budget.
P.S. The ArchCity Defenders report on problems with North County municipal courts is online (PDF). And even before Ferguson blew up, there had been stirrings of reform on some of the courts’ user-unfriendly practices [Post-Dispatch]
Above: Cato podcast, interviewed by Caleb Brown.
The events in Ferguson, Mo. have vaulted police militarization to the top of the national news. I’ve spent a lot of the past 48 hours talking with the press, covering the issue on Twitter and other social media, and fielding reactions to my blog post (reprinted at the Cato blog), which has gotten considerable attention. Highlights:
- Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a likely Republican candidate for president, wrote an extraordinary op-ed for Time that is destined to be widely talked about (how many Republican Senators — or Democrats for that matter — would have written, “Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them”?) Sen. Paul was kind enough to quote my post at length. Reactions: Dave Weigel/Slate, Olivia Nuzzi/Daily Beast; Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle editorial, and many others.
- CBS News’s formidable legal correspondent, Jan Crawford, interviewed me on the subject and the results have begun to air [CBS Evening News]
- I’m interviewed at length in print coverage by Mike Dorning at Bloomberg News and Business Week and by Brian Hughes at the Washington Examiner;
- After a particularly silly meme began to circulate on Twitter (and even in the Washington Post) about libertarians supposedly neglecting the Ferguson events, rebuttals were heard from Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish; Ilya Somin, Volokh Conspiracy; and Andrew Kirell, Mediaite.
- I’ve appeared on Ray Dunaway’s WTIC morning show in Hartford and Jack Riccardi’s midday show on KTSA in San Antonio. Friday: KSRO (Sonoma County, Calif.) with Melanie Morgan.
P.S. Finally some good news from Ferguson. Newly assigned cops from the Missouri Highway Patrol wear blue not camo, mingle and talk to protesters with respect — and suddenly there’s calm. And the Rand Paul piece is making news.
Why armored vehicles in a Midwestern inner suburb? Why would cops wear camouflage gear against a terrain patterned by convenience stores and beauty parlors? Why are the authorities in Ferguson, Mo. so given to quasi-martial crowd control methods (such as bans on walking on the street) and, per the reporting of Riverfront Times, the firing of tear gas at people in their own yards? (“‘This my property!’ he shouted, prompting police to fire a tear gas canister directly at his face.”) Why would someone identifying himself as an 82nd Airborne Army veteran, observing the Ferguson police scene, comment that “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone“?
As most readers have reason to know by now, the town of Ferguson, Mo. outside St. Louis, numbering around 21,000 residents, is the scene of an unfolding drama that will be cited for years to come as a what-not-to-do manual for police forces. After police shot and killed an unarmed black teenager on the street, then left his body on the pavement for four hours, rioters destroyed many local stores. Since then, reportedly, police have refused to disclose either the name of the cop involved or the autopsy results on young Michael Brown; have not managed to interview a key eyewitness even as he has told his story repeatedly on camera to the national press; have revealed that dashcams for police cars were in the city’s possession but never installed; have obtained restrictions on journalists, including on news-gathering overflights of the area; and more.
The dominant visual aspect of the story, however, has been the sight of overpowering police forces confronting unarmed protesters who are seen waving signs or just their hands.
Federal grants drive police militarization. In 2012, as I was able to establish in moments through an online search, St. Louis County (of which Ferguson is a part) got a Bearcat armored vehicle and other goodies this way. The practice can serve to dispose of military surplus (though I’m told the Bearcat is not military surplus, but typically purchased new — W.O.) and it sometimes wins the gratitude of local governments, even if they are too strapped for cash to afford more ordinary civic supplies (and even if they are soon destined to be surprised by the high cost of maintaining gear intended for overseas combat).
As to the costs, some of those are visible in Ferguson, Mo. this week.
[edited to add/update links and to clarify the issues of military surplus and the un-interviewed witness; cross-posted at Cato at Liberty]