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Ferguson: What Needs Fixed?
The City of Ferguson, Missouri, has been under the microscope since the August 9, 2014, shooting death of 18 year old Michael Brown by Police Officer Darren Wilson. The national news media was immediately drawn to the unfolding events. Michael Brown was an 18 year old African American; Officer Wilson was a white police officer. Was this a case, at its core, about stereotyping and race? Let’s address and analyze the question.
Many news outlets, civil rights leaders, and prominent politicians immediately suggested that race was a factor in the shooting, a claim that was articulated well before the evidence and facts were examined. This speculation by the media, certain civil rights leaders, and certain misguided politicians ignited a firestorm of race-based protest, further endangering public safety in vulnerable communities.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch, working with independent law enforcement agencies, took great care to investigate all aspects of the case before sending it to the Grand Jury. The Grand Jury, after an extensive review and examination of the evidence, concluded that there were insufficient grounds to charge Officer Wilson with a crime.
If one has faith in the criminal justice system, then one must conclude that the system worked in this case. And, if one is critical of the criminal justice system, then one must explain why, based upon the facts. While certain journalistic, civil rights, and political pundits drew conclusions before the facts were in, Prosecutor McCulloch and the Grand Jury members did not. They did their job and essentially found that Officer Wilson’s official actions on August 9 were within the constructs of established rule of law; the shooting was justified.
So, returning to the question posed above, “Was this case, at its core, about stereotyping and race?” A reasonable person would have to conclude that certain news outlets, certain civil rights leaders, and certain political leaders did indeed assess and evaluate this case (prematurely) based upon stereotype and race. Their preconceived stereotypes regarding race led them to conclude that if a white police officer shoots a young man of color, it is a misdeed attributable to the officer. On the other hand, Prosecuting Attorney McCulloch and the Grand Jury members did not allow stereotyping and race (or pronounced journalistic and political biases) to influence their decision.
In the aftermath of the St. Louis Grand Jury’s finding, political leaders are searching for answers regarding a “simmering” tension throughout the nation centered on race. This is a discussion that is long overdue but really has nothing to do with Ferguson.
Crime data indicate that in the year 2013 alone there were 1,824 gang-related homicides in the United States. Over 90 % of these deaths were of young, promising people from minority communities. In the last decade, we have lost over 15,000 people to gang violence. The U.S. is facing a national health epidemic—that is, young, African-American and Hispanic people are dying much too young.
Ferguson provided an opportunity for journalists, civic leaders, and politicians to step into the spotlight and to pontificate on the question of “What needs fixed?” Bright lights can cause blind spots and distort what we see. There is plenty to be fixed.
Apparently, putting body cameras on police is the best answer to surface to date.
Thomas J. Jurkanin, PhD
Editor-in-Chief, Law Enforcement Executive Forum