Ferguson’s Shame

There’s been a disturbing development in the case involving an 18-year-old black American shot dead by a policeman in Missouri. This case was the catalyst for days of violent protest in Ferguson, a predominantly black suburb in St Louis. It also resulted in a nationwide debate about the relationship between young black Americans and the police. Two independent witnesses have come forward to give their version of events.

CNN released cell phone footage revealing the reactions of two construction workers who were in the vicinity at the time the incident happened. It is controversial and damning of the police. The footage shows the young black man’s hands were raised before he was killed. It also supports other eyewitness accounts that the 18-year-old was retreating or surrendering. The video shows one of the construction workers raising his hands immediately after the shooting calling out to the police officer that the young man had his hands up. The construction worker said in an interview with CNN that the policeman, didn’t tell the young black man to lie down on the ground, he just kept shooting. The eyewitness heard one gunshot and then another about 30 seconds later. When he saw the young man with a fatal head wound he again called out to the police officer, his hands were in surrender and the police officer did not need to shoot.

This account of course completely contradicts the police version of events. The police version has this officer shooting the young man in self-defense. There was a struggle and the young man attacked the police officer prompting him to draw his weapon and use lethal force. But these two construction workers  were 50 feet away when the cop opened fire. That makes them eyewitnesses to what happened. They said the young black man didn’t confront the police officer. In fact he was running away from the police car. The officer was chasing him and the young man raised his hands in the air. The two construction workers were not locals. They were employed by a business from Jefferson County south of Missouri. The lawyer representing the family of the young man who was shot said these two eyewitnesses came forward of their own account. He also said he thought this new video was a deal breaker in the case. It wasn’t the fact that these construction workers were white and were from out of town. It was a deal breaker because it showed their reactions immediately after what they had just witnessed. It was the best evidence you could have other than a video of the actual shooting.

The St Louis County Prosecutor is saying very little about this new development as you might expect. These two construction workers were among a number of witnesses interviewed by the authorities and they were just part of the ongoing investigation. To put all of this in context, a local Grand Jury is considering all of the evidence being gathered for potential criminal charges against the police officer responsible for shooting the young man. The general consensus amongst the local legal fraternity is that the video will be admissible evidence in any future court case against the police officer.

But the criminal investigation into the shooting is not the only inquiry happening in Ferguson. The White House has begun a Federal investigation into whether the Ferguson police systematically violated the civil rights of people living in the city. Make that black people living in the city. The Department of Justice is also working with the St Louis County force, which was heavily criticized for its militarized response and over reaction to the protests that followed the shooting. In other words the Justice Department thinks the county force needs to reform the way it handles demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience.  Some of the law enforcement statistics strongly suggest there is a real problem with how black people are treated by police in Ferguson. According to figures published by the Missouri Attorney General, the ratio of black motorists stopped by police compared to white motorists is seven to one. Police are 12 times more likely to conduct a search of a black motorist’s car than a white motorist.

What is even more alarming is that 13 percent of Ferguson’s police officers have faced allegations of using excessive force in discharging their duties. This compares extremely unfavorably to the national average, which is half of one percent. One thing is certain. We have not heard the end of this.

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