Riots after a vigil for an unarmed teenager killed by police in St. Louis this weekend resulted in 32 arrests. While I don’t think public destruction and looting resolve anything, I do understand that it’s almost always a sign of heightened racial tension, unleashed when an outraged community has no other viable channels to demand justice from a corrupt justice system.
Without dash cam evidence nor many witness statements, the events leading up to the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer are still speculative. That is, until the police department released their version of the incident—and confirmed that the boy was unarmed.
The NAACP, Eric Holder, and Al Sharpton have joined the teen’s family members, friends and members of the community in demanding a federal investigation. The Brown family hired attorney Benjamin Crump, who represented the family of Trayvon Martin, after hearing the police department’s official statement implicating Brown as the aggressor.
St. Louis police chief Jon Belmar stated in a news conference that the officer was suddenly shoved into his vehicle, overwhelmed, “physically assaulted,” and disarmed during a “struggle for his weapon” by a single 18-year-old boy. During the struggle, a shot was fired inside the squad car. The teen fled and the officer pursued, at which point, the police chief states: “There was a shooting where the officer, in fact, shot the subject.”
It’s an odd way to put it, to begin with “there was a shooting” when explaining that an officer shot a fleeing unarmed suspect. Brown had no gun, and no one with Brown at the time was arrested. The officer fired at least eight times. All shells at the scene belonged to his service weapon.
Witnesses told quite a different story. Brown’s friends, Piaget Crenshaw and Dorin Johnson, were walking home with Brown when a police officer approached in his cruiser and yelled at them to “get out of the fucking street.” The teens claimed to have responded that they were almost home and would be out of the street shortly, when the officer reached out of his patrol car to grab Brown by the throat.
Crenshaw claims that Brown “ran for his life” and was shot by the officer, at which point he raised his hands in the air to demonstrate compliance, and was then shot a few more times.
There is far too little information to piece together what happened exactly just before the teen was shot, or what kind of altercation caused him to run in the first place. Witness statements from close friends are notoriously unreliable, especially when emotions are heightened and the risk is greater to speak out. Police statements are also unreliable in politically charged situations that threaten the reputation of the entire department – especially in St. Louis, where there is very little outside oversight over the use of deadly force.
Policy, however, determines that the St. Louis police can only use gunfire to “protect a life or stop a violent, armed felon from fleeing.” Neither applies to Brown, who posed no threat as he ran away.
Considering how the St. Louis police department has dealt with investigations into misuse of deadly force in the past, without a federal investigation or pressure from civil rights groups (the FBI is currently assisting in the investigation with local police), the usual response of St. Louis officials is an internal review of procedures and policy behind closed doors, and possibly a financial settlement with the family. Often this ends with commendation of the police department for their bravery in dangerous situations.
This was the case in the shooting of Randy Hill in 2008, which started the discussion of whether St. Louis police can fire upon a suspect simply because they believe he “may” have a weapon. Eventually, the Board of Police Commissioners privately settled Hill’s suit for $400,000.
While there is no national database of shots fired by police officers, the records that do exist demonstrate that St. Louis is one of the cities with the highest rates of police shootings. More troubling is that 96% of all investigations into these incidents were cleared by the department. In the few cases in which officers were found to have used deadly force inappropriately, the typical punishment was a few days suspension.
If the police officer who shot Brown (now on leave) turns out to be white, this incident will start to make a whole lot more sense. Currently, the officer’s name and race have not been disclosed to the public, but the fervor and outrage behind the destructive riots this weekend has primed #MikeBrown to be the next national racial controversy.
Regardless of the race of the officer, the only details of this story so far, from both sides, indicate that someone acted irrationally. We’re to believe that an 18-year-old boy, described as a “gentle giant” by his friends and family, suddenly decided to attack an armed cop with no provocation, or we’re to believe that a cop suddenly attacked a teen boy who was doing nothing more than walking in the street (while being black).
There remains one alarming and immovable fact. This was murder. A teen boy was killed after an altercation, when he was presenting no threat to the officer or anyone else. It remains to be seen how the St. Louis police department will twist this boy into a believable bad guy, or maintain that the officer was scared or confused.
Brown’s mother says she hopes to see the officer go to prison and get the death penalty. Given the way St. Louis protects its trigger-happy cops, it’s unlikely this officer will see a single day in jail.