What is the truth? That’s a question they are asking in Ferguson Missouri. And it’s a question probably being asked across the continental United States.
What is the truth in the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown? Is the truth the finding of the Grand Jury that the policeman who shot him dead should not face criminal charges for his actions?
Or is the truth something else entirely?
An unarmed black man willfully shot dead by a white police officer. It was never disputed that the policeman killed Michael Brown. The question has always been was lethal force justified in this case?
As we search for that elusive commodity, the truth, here are the events, outlined by St Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch, played out on that fateful day in August this year.
It might be the best place to start our investigation.
It’s 11.45 am and white Police Officer Darren Wilson responds to a call about a two month old baby struggling to breathe. He clears the job, after paramedics arrive but hears on his police radio about a snatch and grab robbery.
Two young black men, one wearing a red hat, khaki shorts and yellow socks have robbed a local market of some cigarillo cigars. Wilson will tell the Grand Jury he had no intention of answering the radio call concerning the robbery, but he randomly encounters Michael Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson walking down the middle of a street.
Officer Wilson is driving a police SUV. As he reaches the pair, he tells them to move to the sidewalk. Words are exchanged but the pair continues to walk down the middle of the road. Wilson notices that one of the young men, Michael Brown, is wearing clothing that matches the earlier police description of one of the robbery suspects. He also sees that Brown has cigarellos in one of his hands.
Wilson radios for backup.
He immediately reverses his vehicle at an angle, blocking Brown and Johnson’s path as well as incoming traffic from both directions.
According to Prosecutor McCulloch, many witnesses reported seeing an altercation, a wrestling tug of war, going on between Brown who is standing next to the drivers side window of the police SUV and Officer Wilson seated inside.
What happened next, witnesses disagree on. Some said Brown punched Wilson, others said Brown was partially inside the police vehicle via the driver’s window, or that Officer Wilson fired at Brown from inside the police vehicle. We do know Officer Wilson had redness and swelling on one side of his face.
Three post mortems were conducted on the body of Michael Brown. All of the pathologists agreed on the location and number of gunshot wounds on the body. The autopsy results show that Michael Brown was definitely shot once during that altercation at the police SUV.
A total of two bullets were fired from inside the police SUV. One bullet struck the door armrest and the other was never found. One of the shots struck Michael Brown causing an injury to his right thumb. The autopsy confirmed gunshot soot in the wound so it was fired at close range during the altercation. Brown’s blood/DNA was found in the car, on the outside of the driver’s side door, on the left rear door and on Officer Wilson’s clothing and gun.
Almost all of the witnesses agree on one point. Brown hesitates, after the shots were fired inside the SUV, then flees from the scene, running in an easterly direction.
Officer Wilson, gets out of his police SUV with his weapon in hand and begins chasing Brown.
Some witnesses reported seeing Officer Wilson firing at Michael Brown as he ran. If he did, none of the bullets hit Brown from behind as a number of witnesses had claimed.
In any case it is not relevant to the case or what happened next.
Brown is running in an easterly direction and he stops at a street corner, turning towards Officer Wilson, facing west.
Brown begins moving in a westerly direction towards Wilson.
Again there are conflicting eyewitness reports. Some witnesses said Brown didn’t move towards Wilson at all but remained stationary with his hands raised. Other witnesses said he didn’t raise his hands, or raised them just briefly or held onto his stomach. Others said he stumbled towards Wilson or moved quickly or charged.
What is remarkable, even though a group of people will all look at the same thing, at the same time, they can come to completely different conclusions about what they saw.
Which brings us to the fatal shooting itself.
Some witnesses said Officer Wilson opened fire and only stopped shooting when Brown stopped moving towards him. He resumed firing when Brown began moving towards him again. The sounds of the shots were captured by someone video chatting in a nearby apartment. The sounds indicated two set of shots interrupted by a gap in the middle. Officer Wilson fired several more shots, one of which was fatal. Three bullets hit Michael Brown when he was either falling or bent at the waist. One of those bullets entered the top of his head, killing him.
Michael Brown’s blood was found 25 feet east of where his body lay which would indicate that he travelled that distance in Officer Wilson’s direction. Both he and Wilson ended up about 153 feet from the police SUV.
In testimony to the Grand Jury, Officer Wilson said he was carrying lethal force in the form of a Sig Sauer point four zero caliber pistol, with 13 rounds, 12 in the magazine and one round in the chamber. He was also carrying two extra bullet magazines on his belt. Officer Wilson did not have a Taser, but he was carrying non-lethal force in the form of a telescopic police baton and OC spray or Mace.
Let’s just step back a little, take a deep breath and examine what has been said here.
Wilson encounters two young black men initially doing what amounts to civil disobedience, walking in the middle of the road. It is reckless and potentially dangerous. He has warned Brown and Johnson but they ignore his warning telling him that they are nearly at their destination. According to the Wilson Grand Jury testimony, Brown let’s fly with some expletives. It is disrespectful to Wilson but hardly a capital crime.
Then Officer Wilson notices what Brown is wearing. It matches a description he has just heard on the police radio. But again we are talking about a petty crime. There is no suggestion in the police radio dispatch that Brown was armed when he stole the cigarellos or that he threatened anyone. It was a crime of opportunity. Brown grabbed the cigarellos from the store and ran away without paying for them.
Then Officer Wilson does something I find totally inexplicable. He radios for backup.
Backup is something a policeman does if he is going into a dangerous situation where he is outnumbered and he might need extra police resources to bring the situation under control.
But where is the threat?
I can’t see it.
Unfortunately Officer Wilson, was never asked why he called for backup when he appeared before the Grand Jury.
Backup suggests that Officer Wilson is expecting a confrontation.
But why would he?
Brown and Johnson are shoplifters. Petty thieves. They need to be apprehended but they are not dangerous. No violence was used in their crime. No threats were made.
Clearly if Officer Wilson thought the situation needed backup, he doesn’t wait for it to arrive. He decides to confront Brown and Johnson directly.
The forensic evidence discloses that a fight ensues between Wilson in the driver’s seat, inside the vehicle and Brown outside positioned next to the driver’s side window.
Wilson tells the Grand Jury that during the fight he draws his weapon and points it at Brown who responds by trying to grab it. Another struggle ensues and two shots are fired one of them hitting Brown in the right thumb. Brown responds by fleeing from the scene.
Ok. Let’s pause again.
Wilson says Brown was physically bigger than him, threatening and intimidating. He said the nature of the fight meant he did not have the opportunity to use his police baton or his mace.
Even if what he is saying is true, and let’s accept that it is, what happens next is not so easily explained.
Brown flees with Wilson in pursuit. Armed with his police issue pistol.
I can understand that Officer Wilson would be pretty shaken up at this point.
The evidence shows he has been punched in the side of the face, there has been a struggle over his gun. Two bullets have been fired and the 18-year-old Brown has been shot in the thumb.
But I would have thought Officer Wilson’s training would kick in here. Being cool and calm, not confronting aggression with aggression.
At this point, he has already called for backup, which is only minutes away from arriving. He doesn’t need to pursue Brown. He can wait for more police to arrive and they can pretty easily arrest the young man.
But Officer Wilson doesn’t do any of those things.
He doesn’t arm himself with the non-lethal options he is carrying.
Clearly, his weapon of choice, the only weapon he is intent on using, is his police issue firearm. He has lethal force. He is the man with all of the power here.
Brown only has his fists. But only one fist is working properly to be perfectly accurate. Let’s not forget he has been shot in the thumb, which would have been both painful and incapacitating. Even if Michael Brown had two fists working perfectly he would be no match for someone armed with a gun.
Michael Brown is shot again and again and again. Officer Wilson says Brown kept coming at him giving him little choice but to keep shooting. The fatal shot being delivered when Brown is bent at the waist almost certainly as a result of being shot multiple times.
By the time the fatal shot was delivered, Officer Wilson’s intentions were very clearly to kill Michael Brown.
So of course that brings us back to the original question: was lethal force justified?
This is my take on the answer.
Officer Wilson had a confrontational mindset from the very start. His intention was to deal aggressively with Michael Brown from the very moment he confirmed that he was the suspect in the market robbery.
The problem with aggression is that it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Aggression only leads to more aggression.
But i would like to know what has happened to the concept of using lethal force only as an absolute last resort and only when you you have no other choice and you feel your life has been threatened? Officer Wilson had choices other than using lethal force. He did not need to chase Michael Brown while armed with his police issue pistol.
Sometimes the safest and best option is to withdraw from a dangerous situation in the same way police cars pull away from some high speed pursuits.
If police training says the appropriate response, in cases like this, is to use a gun to resolve the confrontation, then they need to have a good look at their training in my view.
Michael Brown committed a crime, and did something really, really stupid in trying to grab Officer Wilson’s gun.
But I think one incredibly stupid action, shouldn’t be followed, fairly closely, by another in my opinion. Especially when it involves a police officer and a gun.
There can only be one outcome. Someone, will end up dead.
I believe Officer Wilson could have waited, should have waited for the backup he had called for.
Did Michael Brown need to die? I’ll be true to myself and say no I don’t think so.