November 28, 2014

Ferguson, Brown and Wilson thoughts

First, it probably fits nobody's "narrative," but this seems to be a reasonable reconstruction of what happened when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson stopped Michael Brown and eventually fatally shot him.

Note that some of it is conjecture. It will remain conjecture forever, for the most part, as I noted a few weeks back in discussing autopsy evidence.

The reconstruction is based on multiple autopsies, including one performed at the request of Brown's family. And, even The Nation notes that those autopsies aren't inconsistent with Wilson's version of events.

Yes, Wilson may have motive for lying about some elements. So, too, may friends of Brown. Both of them may be lying about some elements. That said, forensic investigation reconstructs a certain amount of things. I've blogged before about how neither "side" is totally right. Beyond that, eyewitness testimony in general is not as credible as people would believe, and that's even without it being fueled by massive shots of emotions. That said, NPR notes that "Witness 14," arguably the most sympathetic to Brown, admitted that, before the final, fatal shots were fired, Brown was moving toward Wilson after being told to stop.

Sadly, even a Charles Pierce is at least partially going down the narrative line. He excoriates Wilson for claiming someone "exactly the same height" intimidated him (taking the statement as true for argumentation), while not noting that Brown outweighed him by nearly 100 pounds and thus isn't the same size.

Second: as for the grand jury? In Missouri, 9 of 12 votes are needed to true bill someone. While it's arguably true that St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch was less than stellar, at least, in not presenting the grand jury with possible specific crimes to commit, it's a bit far in calling him Wilson's defense attorney. More here, as an overview, on what the grand jury had to consider. If you really want to dive in further, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has transcripts of grand jury testimony. Related grand jury info here.

Per Pearce, would we have been better served if Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon had appointed a special prosecutor? Maybe, though even then, I doubt there would have been an indictment.

That said, there was at least a bit more chance of an indictment if McCulloch hadn't handed off prosecutorial presentation to the grand jury to an assistant, Kathy Alizadeh, and especially if she hadn't presented grand jurors a 1979 Missouri law on police use of force ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Tennessee v. Garner case. Both McCulloch and Alizadeh should be censured by the state bar, and if McCulloch has Supreme Court privileges, Eric Holder ought to find a way to remove them if possible.

On the other hand, per the NPR interview, "Witness 14" testimony plus the state's "police deference" law almost surely would have nixed an indictment for involuntary manslaughter, let alone anything more strenuous than that, even with a correct, post-Garner Missouri law. Garner, after all, allows for the officer to act on fear of serious bodily injury, not just fear of death. And, the only dissent to Garner was that it was too restrictive of cops. I can't think of a lesser charge that would fit a worst-case scenario interpretation of Wilson's actions, and a charge greater than that had less than zero chance.

Let's not forget that in Atwater v. Lago Vista, after all, that the Supreme Court said cops can arrest people for moving violations, even something so minor as not wearing a seat belt.

In short, we would have had another scapegoat instead of McCulloch.

Third, as for the two people at the center of the storm? We know Wilson had no previous police disciplinary record. We know Brown had no Class A or B felonies, but don't know about lesser felonies or misdemeanors; unfortunately, family court there refused to release information about possible lesser charges, and didn't otherwise comment one way or the other. And, that's not to "smear" Brown; it's to honestly ask about his past.

Fourth, per the Post's live blog of events after the grand jury, senseless rioting (which is, by definition, senseless) doesn't help anything.

Fifth, for folks in a black-majority city who don't like a white-majority city council? This is why, as I blogged a while back, voting in municipal elections is important. So is voting in midterm Congressional elections. If you haven't done that, there's still time to make yourself part of the solution in the future.

Sixth, what can we do to try to keep something like this from happening again?

1. Get the feds to tie police grant money to better training on stop and arrest procedures in general, and civil rights-based conduct in particular
2. As I said in my first blog post link above, have cops wearing on-body video cameras. (Federal grant money could be tied to this, too.) And, sanction cops who "somehow" have their cameras off at just the "right" (wrong) times, as has been the case in Albuquerque. And, on-body video cams protect good cops from slanders, etc. They may not give a lot more help to people who are shot, on criminal cases against police, given the "deference" laws most states have, but they can help more with civil suits.
3. Get a few more people on both "sides" to acknowledge that there are both bad cops and bad young minority (and Caucasian) residents. Along with that, get a few more people on both "sides" to acknowledge there are plenty of good cops, and good youth, of all ethnicities.
4. Get more cities of reasonable size to establish community police boards, and make sure they have necessary teeth.
5. Stop militarizing police departments in general.
6. Have potential criminal cases, or potential indictments, for excessive use of police force, overseen by special prosecutors (notwithstanding what I said about a special prosecutor in this case).
7. Again, especially minorities, but more liberal-minded people in general? If you want change, then you have to vote for change at the local government level. If Ferguson doesn't have a black-majority city council and a black mayor by the time we get past 2016 municipal elections, then look in the mirror. And move municipal election dates to general election dates, if you can, to help.

None of these will happen easily, quickly or overnight. Some of them will take pressure from Washington, starting with an acknowledgment by Barack Obama that he is NOT our nation's first "post-racial" president. Actually stopping the hardware militarization of police departments, not just saying it's a possible problem, also starts at his doorstep.

There are other things that can be done, too. Those are just the top relevant ones.

Radley Balko suggests fixing St. Louis County's Balkanized small-town patchwork would help somewhat. What would help more on the incidents he mentions is the Missouri legislature putting a cap on what percentage of its budget a community can make off traffic fines.


My personal belief is that Wilson probably overreacted a bit, but not incredibly at the time of first coming upon Brown. Also, being young, he probably didn't follow best police procedures in some ways and probably could have stood to have better training in some ways. Given that Brown was with others, Wilson probably shouldn't have rolled his window all the way down when he did, and should have waited until backup arrived.

But, Wilson did not extremely overreact, as I see it.

That said, Brown had just strongarm-robbed a convenience store. Yes, when you go beyond theft to committing assault as part of a theft, that's what it's called in Texas, and probably something similar in Missouri. By the time Wilson used his police Tahoe to block off traffic, he knew about the robbery and knew that Brown fit the description.

Per Witness 14, it's arguable that Wilson shouldn't have been presented to the grand jury. Even without "deference" laws, it would not be easy to charge him, and almost impossible to convict.

I know some liberal friends and acquaintances may not like that. Some may not like the fact that, no pun even close to intended, this isn't a totally black and white case.

It's a tragedy, It's a tragedy that could have happened differently — for all sorts of reasons.

It's a tragedy that began with the commission of a crime, though. Especially if Brown had no previous mild felonies, it was a stupid crime just as a blatant theft, even without adding violence to it.


Actually, I'm adding a few more thoughts.

One is that Brown's parents are telling a story that's a fair amount different from grand jury testimony, including that of "Witness 14." I simply don't find his mom, Lesley McSpadden, credible. She also doesn't know how much or how little strength her son had after the first couple of shots. I have edited a news story about an apparently mentally ill person fatally shot by police. Multiple shots hit the person and he kept walking forward, and at least part of this was captured on police camera.

And, no, Michael Brown's life can't be judged by a 17-second video clip from that c-store of robbery, as she says, but, his seeming criminality on that day certainly can be judged by that.

We can also judge not only stress, but a bit of the character of McSpadden by possible armed robbery of her own, along with her boyfriend, also called Brown's stepfather, over relatives selling Michael Brown related merchandise. Family dysfunctionality can't have helped young Brown's life. And, that link is the first time I've read that story, in part because my life hasn't been living and dying on each day of Michael Brown coverage.

Wilson, even if not telling every bit of truth, is absolutely right that officers are trained not to try to pull unrestrained or unsubdued suspects into their vehicles.

Second is that, yes, I don't know what it's like to be African-American facing a nearly all-white police department. I also don't know what it's like to be a police officer. And I and a lot of people don't know what it's like to be a black police officer in such a community being called a race traitor. I have seen the black police chief of this community being accused by the black mayor pro tem of letting his mixed-ethnicity police force deliberately "pick on" black drivers.

Third is that grand juries don't work the way the Browns' lawyer claims. He and they are welcome to pursue legal remedies that play out that way via the civil system.

Fourth is that, while I like a fair amount of Charles S. Pierce's writing, too often, he follows or creates "narratives" himself. They're usually Democrats vs. Republicans, or when they're more generic liberals vs. conservatives, they don't step outside the boxes to third-party politics, or independent, critical thinking. His rejection of Wilson's comments on Brown's size indicated to me that, on this, he's going to double down on a stereotypical narrative line, and keep digging the whole deeper the more he writes.

For example, Pierce scoffs at Wilson's statement that it was his job to observe and monitor Brown, not arrest him. Actually, Wilson's exactly right. Until backup cops arrived, that was exactly his job.

I've read Pierce writing about small-town newspaper work before. Based on this and related things I've seen in his writing, I'm going to uncharitably but straightforwardly assume he knows enough about police work to know Wilson is correct and that his scoffing is a form of lying.

So, Charlie, your Esquire link comes off my blogroll. I can have people like a Ken White of Popehat, whom I disagree with even more, or a Ted Rall, as long as they're going to try to be reasonably straightforward.

Josh Marshall is another member of the national liberal commentariat whose take on Wilson I find wanting. First, like Pierce, he downplays the size difference.

Next, he refuses to wade into scenario reconstruction like that WaPost link at the top of the page here. He says:
I'm going to set aside all the questions about just how far apart Wilson and Brown were when the fatal shooting occurred, the angle of Brown's body, whether his hands were up. Lots of people have parsed the evidence on that a lot more closely. Those points are technical and accounts are conflicting. 
There's a word for that, and it's called "chickenshit."

I don't deny, per you and others, that Wilson was gilding the lily in some of his account.

Pierce, and others, are at least halfway right to raise an eyebrow at Wilson saying that Brown appeared "demon-possessed." At a minimum, Wilson could have used better language.

At the same time, in light of grand jury testimony, again referring back to Witness 14, it does appear that Brown was non-responsive in some way, perhaps even "out of control." While Wilson didn't use the most correct language for that, that appears to be what he's saying.

This, in turn, spins it back to Pierce. Contra other insinuations, I think this shows that either Wilson wasn't "coached" much before the ABC interview, or else that he had bad coaching.

He still comes off as more credible than Brown's mom, at least.

As for people who have asked (often rhetorically) why Wilson didn't say more before Nov. 26? Er, because the grand jury hadn't voted yet, and he didn't want to say anything that might cause him to prejudice himself in their eyes.

As Brown's parents have not yet indicated whether they will or will not file a civil suit, if Wilson is wisely advised, you won't hear much more from him. And, since at least the Ferguson PD, as well as the city of Ferguson, could be targeted by such a suit, even with sovereign immunity, nobody else from the city there will be saying much more.

And now, yet another bit of fun?

The family-requested first autopsy of Brown? Don't put so much stock in it; it was done in part by someone with mail-order certification. No, really. And, that Caribbean medical school he was "going to attend"? Accredited by nobody other than the government of St. Kitts, and primarily reliant on distance learning. In addition, he's lying about university affiliation he doesn't have.

Finally, there's a lot of better cases of police shootings than the Brown cases, including white-on-white shootings, that are poster cases for police reform, than is the Brown/Wilson case.

As for why I'm primarily focusing on the liberal narrative rather than the conservative one? Well, I'm a liberal, and my real-life and online world friends are generally liberal, not conservative, so I am running into more details of the liberal one.

My thoughts on such "marratives" in general, and what light philosophy can shed in moving beyond polarized, dualistic, dueling narratives, is here.

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