Riots erupted in Ferguson, Mo., last week after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man. The precise circumstances of Brown's confrontation with Officer Darren Wilson are not clear, but according to witnesses Brown was unarmed, in the open, and raising his hands above his head at the time he was shot. The rioting and looting that followed are unjustifiable in a civilized society. Those throwing Molotov cocktails and committing other crimes aren't protesting — they are endangering lives and property and should be prosecuted.
That said, there is still no satisfactory explanation for why Brown's life ended this way — even if he was suspected in the strong-arm robbery of a box of cheap cigars, as Ferguson police assert. It is hard to imagine any situation in which sound law enforcement judgment would permit the shooting of an unarmed, fleeing suspect in the open on a residential street from 20 feet away.
|Those throwing Molotov cocktails and committing other crimes aren't protesting — they are endangering lives and property and should be prosecuted.|
The vast majority of police officers are dedicated public servants and protectors. What they do is essential to maintaining civilized society. Too many of them die in the line of duty every year. But that’s also why police abuses are such serious matters. They not only violate the public trust, they encourage more distrust of the very people whom society must trust the most.
Officer Wilson deserves full due process and the presumption of innocence, just like anyone accused of a crime. But the 53-man Ferguson Police Department is a different matter, if only because there were indications of deep systemic problems long before Brown’s death.
On Friday, the Daily Beast related a 2009 incident in which Ferguson police arrested the wrong man (also black) because he happened to have the same name (Henry Davis) as a wanted offender. Despite noticing that Davis had a different middle name and Social Security number than the suspect, the police held him, then allegedly beat him in his cell, giving him a concussion and causing bleeding from his head. They then charged him with destruction of property — for bleeding on their uniforms.
When deposed in Davis' subsequent lawsuit, officers involved contradicted their sworn report, insisting that Davis hadn't been bleeding at all, because (naturally) they hadn't beaten him. The department also may have destroyed videotape of the jailhouse incident — or at least it conveniently preserved the wrong tape, from 12 hours after the fact. Most importantly, the attorney representing the victim discovered that the department kept no reliable records on the frequency of officers' use of force, nor on the frequency of citizen complaints against officers.
The initial police response to last week's demonstrations prompted an important national discussion on the militarization of U.S. police forces. But more closely related to Brown's death is the quality and transparency of police practices. What is true in all other areas of government is true also of the police: Trust becomes impossible when officials make themselves unaccountable. A police force that does this is a disaster waiting to happen.