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On August 9, unarmed teen Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in this St. Louis suburb. Protests and outrage began.
On Monday night, the nation's eyes were on Ferguson waiting for the grand jury's decision on the killing of Michael Brown. Brown's death, and finding justice in it has captured the attention of this country. One of the ways people reacted to the decision, and one of the ways we communicate today was on social media.
This map shows the number of geo-tagged tweets mentioning Ferguson, and the dramatic rise activity — peaking at the point where it was announced and people were coming to the realization that officer Darren Wilson would face no charges for killing Michael Brown:
Here is the major spike in chart form:
How would American media cover the news from Ferguson, Missouri, if it were happening in just about any other country? How would the world respond differently? Here, to borrow a great idea from Slate's Joshua Keating, is a satirical take on the story you might be reading if Ferguson were in, say, Iraq or Pakistan.
FERGUSON — Chinese and Russian officials are warning of a potential humanitarian crisis in the restive American province of Missouri, where ancient communal tensions have boiled over into full-blown violence.
"We must use all means at our disposal to end the violence and restore calm to the region," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in comments to an emergency United Nations Security Council session on the America crisis.
The crisis began in August in Ferguson, a remote Missouri village that has been a hotbed of sectarian tension. State security forces shot and killed an unarmed man, which regional analysts say has angered the local population by surfacing deep-seated sectarian grievances. Regime security forces cracked down brutally on largely peaceful protests, worsening the crisis.
In response, ancient American tradition called for the gathering of a community tribal council known as a "grand jury" to weigh the case. On November 24, it announced there would be no charges against the responsible security forces. The stunning decision, which reflects the opaque and mysterious nature of the "grand jury" tradition, further outraged the already despondent local populace.
America has been roiled by political instability and protests in recent years, which analysts warn can create fertile ground for extremists.
Missouri, far-removed from the glistening capital city of Washington, is ostensibly ruled by a charismatic but troubled official named Jay Nixon, who has appeared unable to successfully intervene and has resisted efforts at mediation from central government officials. Complicating matters, President Obama is himself a member of the minority sect protesting in Ferguson, which is ruled overwhelmingly by members of America's majority "white people" sect.
Analysts who study the opaque American political system, in which all provinces are granted semi-autonomous self-rule, warned that Nixon may seize the opportunity to move against weakened municipal rulers in Ferguson. Missouri's provincial legislature, a traditional "shura council," is dominated by the opposition faction. Though fears of a military coup remain low, it is still unknown how Nixon's allies within the capital will respond should the crisis continue.
Now, international leaders say they fear the crisis could spread.
"The only lasting solution is reconciliation among American communities and stronger Missouri security forces," Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a speech from his vacation home in Hainan. "However, we can and should support moderate forces who can bring stability to America. So we will continue to pursue a broader strategy that empowers Americans to confront this crisis."
Xi's comments were widely taken as an indication that China would begin arming moderate factions in Missouri, in the hopes of overpowering rogue regime forces and preventing extremism from taking root. An unknown number of Kurdish peshmerga military "advisers" have traveled to the region to help provide security. Gun sales have been spiking in the US since the crisis began.
Analysts warn the violence could spread toward oil-producing regions such as Oklahoma or even disrupt the flow of American beer supplies, some of the largest in the world, and could provide a fertile breeding ground for extremists. Though al-Qaeda is not known to have yet established a foothold in Missouri, its leaders have previously hinted at assets there.
Though Missouri is infamous abroad for its simmering sectarian tensions and brutal regime crackdowns, foreign visitors here are greeted warmly and with hospitality. A lawless expanse of dogwood trees and beer breweries, Missouri is located in a central United States region that Americans refer to, curiously, as the "MidWest" though it is nearer to the country's east.
It is known among Americans as the home of Mark Twain, a provincial writer from the country's small but cherished literary culture, and as the originator of Budweiser, a traditional American alcoholic beverage. Budweiser itself is now owned by a Belgian firm, in a sign of how globalization is transforming even this remote area of the United States. Analysts say some american communities have struggled as globalization has pulled jobs into more developed countries, worsening instability here.
Locals here eat a regional delicacy known as barbecue, made from the rib bones of pigs, and subsist on traditional crafts such as agriculture and aerospace engineering. The regional center of commerce is known locally as Saint Louis, named for a 13th century French king, a legacy of Missouri's history as a remote and violent corner of the French Empire.
After Ferguson's streets erupted on Monday, in response the "grand jury" decision, a palpable sense of tension and uncertainty hung in the air. A Chinese Embassy official here declined to comment but urged all parties to exhibit restraint and respect for the rule of law. In Moscow, Kremlin planners were said to be preparing for a possible military intervention should political instability spread to the nearby oil-producing region of Texas.
Tear gas is a chemical weapon that the Geneva Convention bans from use in international warfare. Multiple journalists have reported its use Monday night, during the protests that erupted after a grand jury did not indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting and killing of black teenager Michael Brown.
Jake Tapper says there’s definitely some tear gas, it’s not just smoke. Don Lemmon confirms it as well. As does Cuomo.— John Aravosis (@aravosis) November 25, 2014
St. Louis Police has denied the use of tear gas in Ferguson, saying they've only used smoke to disperse crowds.
Tear gas was confirmed to be used during protests in Ferguson this summer immediately following the Brown shooting, a move that alarmed experts. "I'm very concerned about the increased use, and the much laxer attitude we've developed towards the potential health effects," says Sven-Eric Jordt, a scientist at Duke University who researches tear gas.
Jordt says we know a decent amount about how tear gas effects the body in the short-term: it activates pain receptors, especially in the eyes, forcing the eyelids to squeeze shut and tear uncontrollably. Jordt, who himself was tear-gassed during a protest in Germany in the 1980s, describes the sensation as "like cutting an onion but about 100 times more severe."
There is little known, however, about whether the main chemical in modern tear gas — a compound called 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile — can have longer lasting effects on the body. That's something Jordt and his colleagues are currently researching.
Jordt and I spoke Thursday morning about the history of tear gas, how the compound effects the body and what we still don't know about how tear gas works.
Sarah Kliff: Can you start by walking me through the history of tear gas. How was it developed, and why does it exist in the first place?
Sven-Eric Jordt: The first tear gas agents were developed during the First World War as warfare agents. These were highly aggressive, organic compounds used in trench warfare and other situations alongside other, more lethal war gases like mustard gas.
The tear gas that's used by law enforcement now is typically CS gas. It's a compound that was developed because it's less toxic. It's used for clearing wider areas. It was used in the Middle East and Turkey recently to a scale that was unprecedented. Use has increased tremendously over the last few years; it's also been used in the US more and more. I think it's what's being used in Ferguson.
SK: How do these gases work?
SEJ: The way these gases work, and this is what we do research on, is that they activate pain receptors — the pain sensing nerves in our body. The cornea is densely covered with these receptors. When tear gas activates these pain receptors, that leads to body reflexes like profuse tear secretion and a muscle cramp in the eyelid that causes them to close. These are all protective responses that the body has to pain, and with the gas they become extremely exaggerated.
There are situations where this can be very dangerous or lethal. If somebody has asthma, for example, or a hypersensitivity or an airwave disease that can be very dangerous. It's not very frequent, but it has been a problem in the Middle East and other places.
Tear gas can also lead to profuse mucus production, and that can lead to the feeling of suffocation. That's especially true if it's used in closed environments, like what you saw in Cairo. That's not the case here in Ferguson.
SK: Can you explain what it feels like to be tear-gassed? I understand that you've experienced it yourself once.
SEJ: That was in the 1980s when I was a student, and I protested against nuclear waste transport in Germany. It's extremely painful. Your face starts burning very quickly and your eyes start tearing. The eyelids shut and you can't do much. It's like cutting an onion but maybe 100 times more severe. It actually is the same pain receptors being activated as what happens with an onion, except you're dealing with something that is about 100 or 1000 times more potent.
What happens next is you get severe pain in your nose and throat and you also get a lot of mucus and snot production, and that obstructs your breathing. It's like a burn injury or a chemical burn that happens.
SK: What do we know about the long-term effects of tear gas exposure?
SEJ: There are very few studies on that. We don't have very much information from humans; we've mostly looked at it in animal models.
What we know is that tear gas causes inflammatory responses that are very rapid, and causes skin and eye inflammation that takes several days to clear. If someone has a chronic, underlying disease — if they have a skin disease, for example — this could aggregate that condition. There are very few long term studies on this though.
SK: I know your work focuses more on the research of how tear gas works, but I was curious if you had any thinking on why we've seen an increase in tear gas use over the last few years?
SEJ: I think tear gas is seen as safe and somewhat effective, especially when the alternatives are weapons and rubber bullets that can cause much more severe injury. There's a perception that these are relatively harmless compared to other riot controlling measures.
SK: As somebody who studies tear gas, do you think that perception is accurate?
I frankly think that we don't know much about the long-term effects, especially in civilian exposure with kids or elderly or people in the street who might have some kind of lung disease already. There's very few follow-up studies. These are very active chemicals that can cause quite significant injury, so I'm concerned about the increased use of these agents.
The question is: what else could the police use when attacked? It's hard to say, and most people do recover okay after being exposed. But then you see, in the Middle East, tear gas being used to essentially fumigate a city with tens of millions of people, and that's a really big concern.
I'm very concerned that, as use has increased, tear gas has been normalized. The attitude now is like, this is safe and we can use it as much as we want.
On August 15, six days after the death of Michael Brown, the Ferguson Police Department finally identified the officer who shot Brown as Darren Wilson.
The department also released documents about the circumstances of the shooting — suggesting that Brown was the primary suspect in a "strong-arm robbery" of a convenience store shortly before Wilson encountered him. However, in a later press conference that same day, the Ferguson Police Chief clarified that officer Wilson did not know about the robbery at the time of his initial contact with Brown. Rather, Wilson stopped the teenager for walking in the middle of the street.
We don't yet know if Wilson became aware of the robbery in the few minutes between when he stopped Brown and when he shot him. But even if Wilson believed that Brown was a suspect in a robbery, it's still possible that the police officer could be charged with murder or another crime for shooting Brown. And even if Wilson isn't charged with a crime, it's still possible he could be fired.
All of those things depend on the outcome of a criminal investigation currently being deliberated by a St. Louis County grand jury.
That investigation is supposed to collect all the facts about what happened: There's the story Wilson gave the St. Louis County police on the weekend of the shooting, which is that Brown initiated a violent confrontation and tried to grab his gun. There's the conflicting story told by eyewitnesses, which is that Brown was shot twice while facing the officer with his hands up. There's also forensic evidence that could show which of those stories is true.
Once all of that is taken into account, it's up to the grand jury — guided by St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch — to determine whether a crime was committed, and it's on the police department to determine whether the officer should be fired.
So what are the standards by which Wilson will be judged for killing Michael Brown? There are plenty of guidelines for use of force by police, but it often boils down to what the officer believed when the force was used — something that is notoriously difficult to standardize — regardless of how much of a threat actually existed. We talked to two experts to break down the fraught issue.
When a police officer shoots and kills someone on the job, there's a two-track investigation. That's because there are actually two different sets of standards that govern when a police officer can use deadly force.
One set of standards is state law, informed by a couple of Supreme Court precedents that lay out the circumstances under which law enforcement officers are justified in using lethal force on suspects.
The other set of standards is the policy of the officer's police department, which tells its employees when it is and isn't appropriate for them to use force. If a police officer were to murder someone in cold blood while on the job, he wouldn't just be breaking the law — he'd be violating his equivalent of an employee handbook.
So when a cop uses deadly force in an officer-involved shooting, there's a standard criminal investigation: detectives collect evidence and present it to the local prosecutor. The prosecutor then determines whether the shooting fits the standards in state law for permissible homicide. If it doesn't, then a crime has been committed, and the prosecutor's job becomes figuring out which crime it was and whether there's enough evidence to charge the officer with it.
But there's also an internal investigation within the cop's department to evaluate whether the incident violated their use-of-force policy. Many departments' policies are stricter than state law — but an officer can't be charged with a crime just for violating the policy. He or she can, however, be fired for it.
In Ferguson, the St. Louis County Police Department conducted the criminal investigation. After collecting the facts, they passed their report to the prosecutor, McCulloch, who decided to ask a grand jury whether Wilson should be charged with a crime.
David Klinger, a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor who studies use of force, said he assumes the St. Louis County police report will also be the basis of the internal investigation within the Ferguson police department. After St. Louis County gives the Ferguson police the results of their investigation, Klinger says, "the Ferguson chief will either do it himself or convene a group to make a determination about whether the use of deadly force was consistent with Ferguson policy."
The FBI is also conducting an investigation into Brown's death and the events in Ferguson. But the FBI is evaluating whether or not the police violated civil-rights law — which is a different question from whether or not Wilson was justified in killing him.
In the 1980s, a pair of Supreme Court decisions set up a framework for determining when deadly force by cops is reasonable. Those decisions have governed how state laws are applied. Furthermore, many agencies simply use identical standards to the Supreme Court's for their own use-of-force policies — though some departments don't let officers use deadly force even when the Court decisions say they'd be allowed to.
Constitutionally, "police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances," says Klinger. The first circumstance is "to protect their life or the life of another innocent party" — what departments call the "defense-of-life" standard. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect's committed a serious violent felony.
The logic behind the second circumstance, says Klinger, comes from a Supreme Court decision called Tennessee vs. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He'd stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The Court ruled that cops couldn't shoot every felon who tried to escape. But, as Klinger says, "they basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you've got a violent person who's fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight."
Some police departments' policies only allow deadly force in the first circumstance: defense of life. Others have policies that also allow deadly force to prevent escape in certain cases, within the limits of the Supreme Court decision.
Shortly after releasing the documents that identified Brown as the primary suspect in a convenience-store robbery, the Ferguson Police Department clarified that Wilson had not known that Brown was a robbery suspect when he made "initial contact" with Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson. (Instead, the department says, Wilson stopped the teenagers because they were walking in the middle of the street.)
That phrasing doesn't make it clear whether or not Wilson believed Brown to be a robbery suspect when he started to shoot at him. If he did, it might then be up to the investigators and county prosecutor McCulloch to decide whether a "strong-arm robbery," as the Ferguson Police Department described the incident, counts as a violent felony. If they decide it does, that will go some way toward a legal justification for Wilson's action. On the other hand, Wilson would only be able to claim that he was justified if Brown was fleeing — which eyewitnesses say he wasn't.
It's most likely, however, that the whole question is moot. From the Ferguson Police Department's statements on the afternoon of August 15th, it doesn't sound like Wilson even knew about the robbery at all. In that case, there's no way for him to claim that he was justified in keeping a violent felon from fleeing, because he didn't even know Brown was a suspect in a crime at all.
Wilson could instead, however, claim "defense of life" — that he feared for his life when Brown (according to his story) assaulted him in his car. In that case, the next question will be whether it was reasonable for him to be afraid of Brown.
The key to both of the legal standards — defense-of-life and fleeing a violent felony — is that it doesn't matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer's"objectively reasonable"beliefthat there is a threat.
That standard comes from the other Supreme Court case that guides use-of-force decisions: Graham v. Connor. This was a civil lawsuit brought by a man who'd survived his encounter with police officers, but who'd been treated roughly, had his face shoved into the hood of a car, and broken his foot — all while he was suffering a diabetic attack. The Court didn't rule on whether the officers' treatment of him had been justified, but it did say that the officers couldn't justify their conduct just based on whether their intentions were good. They had to demonstrate that their actions were "objectively reasonable," given the circumstances and compared to what other police officers might do.
There are plenty of cases in which an officer might be legally justified in using deadly force because he feels threatened, even though there's no actual threat there. Klinger gives the example of a suspect who is carrying a realistic-looking toy gun. That example bears a resemblance to the shooting death of John Crawford, an Ohio man who was killed by police last week while carrying a toy rifle in Walmart.
Hypothetically, if the gun looked real, Klinger says, "the officer's life was not in fact in jeopardy, but that would be an appropriate use of force. Because a reasonable officer could have believed that that was a real gun." In fact, toy gun manufacturers — including the maker of the air rifle Crawford had — have started using this standard to limit their liability, putting on a warning label that tells consumers police could mistake their products for real guns.
Walter Katz, a California attorney who specializes in oversight of law enforcement agencies — particularly during use-of-force investigations — points out that it's hard to determine whether an officer's fear is reasonable because the decision to shoot is so fast.
"Officer-involved shootings happen extremely quickly. Usually, the point from where the officer believes he has to use deadly force to the point where he uses deadly force — where he pulls the trigger — is about two seconds." That can make it much harder for investigators to decide whether or not the officer was reasonable in thinking he had to shoot. (The police records indicate that three minutes after Wilson encountered Brown, Brown was dead.)
That puts a lot of weight on an officer's immediate instincts in judging who's dangerous. And those immediate instincts are where implicit bias could creep in — believing that a young black man is a threat, for example, even if he is unarmed.
But each use of deadly force does have to be evaluated separately to determine if it was justified. "The moment that you no longer present a threat, I need to stop shooting," said Klinger. According to the St. Louis County Police Department's account, Wilson fired one shot from inside the police car. But Brown was killed some 25 feet away, after several shots had been fired. To justify the shooting, Wilson would need to demonstrate that he feared for his life not just when Brown was by the car, but even after he started shooting. The officer would need to establish that, right up until the last shot was fired, he felt Brown continued to pose a threat to him — whether he actually did or not.
"There's a difference between the moment you cease to be a threat and the moment I perceive that you ceased to be a threat," says Klinger. And Katz points out that if an officer has been assaulted and the suspect runs away, the officer's threat assessment is probably going to be shaped by having just been assaulted. But, Katz says, "one can't just say, 'Because I could use deadly force ten seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now.'"
When Katz evaluates an investigation of an officer-involved shooting, what he looks for "is really twofold. Number one, in the microscopic analysis: what happened? The more macroscopic question: how is the agency asking and answering the question of what happened? Is the investigation thorough, and is it objective?"
Katz and Klinger both run through a list of ways they'd expect investigators to gather evidence. Investigators should look for any video or still camera footage available: from a camera in the officer's car or nearby surveillance cameras.
They should also be using physical evidence to corroborate the accounts of witnesses. In cases where the eyewitness accounts contradict the officer's account, such as the Brown shooting, physical evidence can tell investigators who's telling the truth. If the victim has powder burns on his hands, for example, it means he was grabbing the officer's gun when it fired. If the bullet wounds show that the bullets hit a hard surface and bounced back into the body, that means the victim was almost certainly shot when he was on the ground.
The St. Louis County prosecutor's office announced on Tuesday that the results of the autopsy on Michael Brown's body would not be released to the public — meaning that the public won't know whether the forensic evidence validates eyewitnesses who say that Brown was killed while facing Wilson and holding his hands in the air. That's especially important if Wilson claims he shot Brown for fleeing a violent felony — the forensic evidence could establish whether Brown was still trying to flee as Wilson continued to shoot.
Even though physical evidence can prove eyewitness accounts wrong, interviewing civilian witnesses is important — and, Katz says, it's important that investigators do it "in a manner that seems the investigating agency is interested in the truth." (Professionally, Katz would have access to recordings of interviews if he were evaluating a case; the public doesn't.)
When investigators don't have any physical evidence that tells them who's telling the truth, the trustworthiness of the witnesses becomes crucial. "If I've got Officer X and Officer X is a knucklehead, and the citizen who gives the statement has a pristine record," says Klinger, "the weight's probably going to be toward the witness. If the witness is a six-time loser who's on active parole for shooting three people and beating his wife, and the officer has a clean record," the officer will probably be seen as more credible. (Wilson is a six-year veteran of the Ferguson police with no record of misconduct.)
But both Klinger and Katz urge that it's not the job of the investigators to decide who's credible — much less to decide that someone's not credible enough to interview at all. Investigators are just supposed to present the facts and witness accounts to the prosecutor and the department, and let them make their own decisions.
So if a police department is neglecting to interview eyewitnesses, that's a reason for concern. Katz also says that the public should be looking at the public statements the police department conducting the investigation is making — whether they focus on the need to continue to interview witnesses and gather evidence, or "make it seem like they're adopting the officer's version of events."
When St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar gave a press conference on Sunday morning, he did say that his department would be investigating what happened after Brown left the officer's car. But he maintained that Brown had assaulted the officer (later identified as Wilson) while in the car, and grabbed the officer's gun. In fact, the only reason the public knows Wilson's version of the story at all is because it was told to the press by the head of the department conducting the investigation. And Dorian Johnson, the young man who was with Michael Brown when he was killed, told MSNBC via his attorney Monday that the police haven't asked to speak to him. (On Wednesday, Johnson finally met with police.)
According to the advice laid out by Katz, both Belmar's public statements and the fact that an eyewitness wasn't interviewed until several days after the shooting are good reasons to be less confident that it's going to be an objective investigation.
Is it ever possible for cops to be objective in evaluating something a fellow officer has done? Klinger says that it is. "Police officers who are reviewing their fellows know something the average person doesn't know, and that is what it's like to be on the street and be confronted with these difficult circumstances where you have to make split-second decisions. And in that regard, the officer might be getting a break because he is being judged literally by a jury of his peers." But he says it could easily go the other way: "those other officers are in good standing to call him on his BS and go 'This is not how any reasonable officer would have behaved.'"
Katz looks at the problem a different way. The key, he says, is whether the public has confidence that the investigation is being conducted objectively. "When it comes to officer-involved shootings, confidence is the only currency which that agency has — that the public has confidence that it is going to be an objective and fair and transparent investigation. Once that confidence is lost, people will not trust the outcomes."
In Ferguson, the public reaction to Brown's death makes it pretty clear that residents don't have a great amount of trust in the investigation. They definitely don't trust the St. Louis County police, who were the most visible agency shooting tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets at them in the days of protests after Brown was killed. In fact, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon believed the county police were escalating the situation so much thst he pulled them out of Ferguson and placed state troopers in charge of responding to protesters. But the county is still running the investigation.
In such a tense environment, how the investigation unfolds, and whether the St. Louis County Police Department can conduct it objectively, will be an important factor in whether peace in Ferguson can last. Residents will continue to be angry with police, even to the point of civil unrest, if they can't be confident that the cops are trying.
Available eyewitness accounts of the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson are pretty consistent on a crucial detail: after Wilson started to fire, Brown turned toward him with his hands up. The officer continued to shoot until Brown fell to the ground.
Wilson's full version of events is still unclear. The day after the shooting, St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar relayed Wilson's description of the incident only up to the point that Wilson started shooting. We don't know exactly what Wilson told investigators Brown was doing immediately before the officer fired the final shots. And in the eyes of the law, that missing piece might be the most important part of the story.
The law allows a cop to shoot someone if the cop has a reasonable belief that his life is in danger or that the victim is a felon. But the officer is required to show that his actions were justified every single time he pulled the trigger, not just the first time. According to an independent autopsy report, Brown was shot at least six times.
As I wrote shortly after Brown was shot:
[E]ach use of deadly force does have to be evaluated separately to determine if it was justified. "The moment that you no longer present a threat, I need to stop shooting," said (University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist David) Klinger. According to the St. Louis County Police Department's account, Wilson fired one shot from inside the police car. But Brown was killed some 25 feet away, after several shots had been fired. To justify the shooting, Wilson would need to demonstrate that he feared for his life not just when Brown was by the car, but even after he started shooting. The officer would need to establish that, right up until the last shot was fired, he felt Brown continued to pose a threat to him whether he actually was or not.
"There's a difference between the moment you cease to be a threat and the moment I perceive that you ceased to be a threat," says Klinger. And (police oversight attorney Walter) Katz points out that if an officer has been assaulted and the suspect runs away, the officer's threat assessment is probably going to be shaped by having just been assaulted. But, Katz says, "one can't just say, 'Because I could use deadly force ten seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now.'"
Wilson could make the case that he felt that Brown was a threat when Brown turned around — an unverified source purporting to be a friend of Wilson's told a conservative radio show that Wilson said Brown was charging at him. But in order for Brown's killing to be found "justifiable" in the eyes of the law, Wilson is going to have to make the case that he felt he was under threat when he shot a teenager who witnesses say was facing him with his arms raised. And the grand jury is going to have to decide that it was reasonable for him to feel that way.
The US Department of Justice will investigate the entire Ferguson Police Department for civil rights violations, following the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, the agency announced on Thursday.
The investigation, which will run at the same time as ongoing local and federal investigations into Wilson and the shooting of Brown, will look at whether the police departments have systematically violated the civil rights of local minority communities. The Justice Department, through the the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office, will also help the St. Louis County Police Department change its policing practices, including policies and training regarding use of force.
"The Department of Justice is working across the nation to ensure that the criminal justice system is fair, constitutional and free of bias," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. "Ferguson and St. Louis County are not the first places that we have become engaged to ensure fair and equitable policing and they will not be the last. The Department of Justice will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that the Constitution has meaning for all communities."
Ferguson is predominantly black, but its local government — including its police force — is almost entirely white. The racial disparities have fostered tensions in the small St. Louis suburb, which culminated in the August protests that followed Brown's death. Other towns in the area suffer from similar racial disparities.
The Brown shooting, in other words, is part of a much bigger issue with local police. At least five Ferguson police officers, besides Wilson, have been named in lawsuits claiming civil rights violations, according to the Washington Post. Although the town of Ferguson is roughly 67 percent black, a report from the Missouri attorney general's office found black residents made up more than 93 percent of arrests carried out by Ferguson police that same year.
Under Holder, the Justice Department has initiated more than twice as many civil rights investigations on police departments than his predecessors did in a similar time period. At least 34 police departments are currently under review, according to the Washington Post.
The idea behind these reviews is to identify any systemic issues. As the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out, the investigations have the potential to uncover systemic failures instead of just singling out one police officer for what could be part of a much bigger problem.
I think this is a big deal, potentially bigger than just prosecuting one officer. Systems. Systems. Systems.— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) September 4, 2014
The US criminal justice system in many ways disproportionately hurts black Americans. Although black and white people use and sell drugs at similar rates, black people are much more likely to be arrested for drug possession. And when they're convicted for drug charges, black Americans face considerably longer sentences — in part because sentencing laws treat crack cocaine, one of the few drugs more popular among black than white people, much more harshly.
The disparities explain why Holder's Justice Department — and law enforcement experts — are taking the issue of racism in the criminal justice system much more seriously. After decades of complaints, events like Ferguson have helped bring the issues to the mainstream.
To learn more about racial disparities in the criminal justice system and Ferguson, read the full explainer and watch the video below:
Update: This post was updated to reflect the official announcement and new details.
There's been a lot of energy devoted to figuring out what kind of person Michael Brownwas before he was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, last month — even though that question implies that Brown might have deserved to die. In the latest development, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch filed a request for Brown's juvenile criminal-justice record, which is traditionally kept from the public once someone turns 18. (Brown, who was 18 when he was killed, had no adult criminal record.) The state of Missouri told the paper that Brown hadn't been convicted of any class A or B felonies as a juvenile — the most serious types of felonies under state law, including crimes like burglary, or the most serious drug crimes. The state hasn't said anything about whether Brown had any less serious crimes on his record, including misdemeanors or Class C or D felonies.
Here's what we know in one chart:
There's no word yet on the request filed by the Riverfront Times, a St. Louis weekly newspaper, for the juvenile records of Darren Wilson.
Through the 1033 program, the federal government has geared America's local police departments with military-grade equipment — ranging from airplanes to bayonets — worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
NPR combed through the transaction data for the program to find out where the equipment went and what kind of gear was involved. Since 2006, the Pentagon distributed more than 79,000 assault rifles, 205 grenade launchers, nearly 12,000 bayonets, nearly 4,000 combat knives, 50 airplanes, 479 bomb detonator robots, and much more to America's local cops.
One chart from NPR shows the counties that got the most guns per 1,000 people through the program:
It's not immediately clear why some of these places would need so much military-grade equipment. With the notable exception of Starr County, Texas, the counties and states on the list have modest crime rates, and they aren't hotbeds for drug or terrorist activity — the two main targets of the federal government's police militarization schemes.*
The proliferation of such weapons could soon come to an end. Following outcry against police militarization during the August protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the Obama administration ordered a review that will consider whether local police should have the equipment, whether they need to receive more training if they obtain the gear, and how the federal government can better oversee the equipment's use. The Pentagon said it could even take back some of the equipment if it's deemed necessary.
*Update: This description was updated to include all counties on the chart, instead of just the first two.
Most of the racial prejudice Americans harbor today is subtle and manifests itself in stealthier ways than it did in the past. It shows up in how employers view potential hires, how salespeople choose to assist people at high-end stores, or how teachers dole out punishments to misbehaving students. Often subconscious, these race-based evaluations of character or intelligence have wide-ranging effects.
Extensive research on the subject shows that everyone carries this subconscious prejudice, known as implicit bias, no matter how well-meaning they might be. In the criminal justice system, this implicit bias may contribute to the many racial disparities in law enforcement. When it comes to police officers, implicit bias is a widespread concern, precisely because of how devastating its effects can be, with trade publications and federal programs taking steps to address it through training and awareness.
Clearly, there are law enforcement officials who understand how devastating the effects of implicit bias can be, but no one understands this more than the people living in communities where racial minorities are disproportionately targeted by police and arrested. The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, are about more than the shooting of Michael Brown; the demonstrations are also about the overall system that makes Brown's fate at the hands of police far too common for young black men.
Take, for instance, the massive racial disparities in the war on drugs. Although rates of drug use are fairly similar among white and black Americans, black people are much more likely to be arrested on drug charges. When they're convicted for those drug charges, black Americans also face longer sentences — in part because mandatory minimum sentences on crack cocaine, one of the few illicit drugs that's more popular among black Americans than their white counterparts, are much more stringent than other drug sentences.
Even beyond the war on drugs, black Americans are disproportionately likely to be arrested and killed during an attempted arrest.
Part of the problem is outright racism among some judges and cops, socioeconomic disparities that can drive more crime, and drug laws that disproportionately affect black Americans. But the other explanation is that cops, like everyone else, carry this implicit bias, which experts agree affects how they police people of different races. Since these are the people who carry out the initial steps of law enforcement, this bias might launch a cascading effect of racial disparities that starts with simple arrests and ends in prison or death.
Lorie Fridell is a University of South Florida criminologist who works with cops to help them resist subconscious biases, particularly against young black men.
"Similarly to explicit bias, [implicit bias] groups people into stereotypes and prejudices," Fridell said. "What's different is it doesn’t come with outward hostility."
In police work, this bias can show itself when an officer stops a subject he views as a potential threat. Police officers are legally allowed to use force based on their perception of a threat, so long as their perception is reasonable. That doesn't, however, mean they always use force. "Police very often use a lesser level of force even when they’re justified at a higher level," Fridell said.
But if some cops automatically consider young black men more dangerous, they probably won't show nearly as much restraint against a black suspect as they would against, say, an elderly white woman. Police officers might be more likely, as some argued was the case with Kajieme Powell in St. Louis, to use deadly force that's legally justified but perhaps not totally necessary.
Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder and California State University at Northridge in May reviewed a decade of empirical evidence about cops and implicit bias. They found police officers seem to possess implicit bias that might make them more likely to shoot black suspects than white ones. But this bias can be controlled through proper training, and police officers appear to perform better — meaning, they show less implicit bias — than participants from the general public.
To test these disparities, researchers have run all sorts of simulations with police officers and other participants. In the earlier days, these simulations would quickly flash images of black and white people, along with different objects, and ask participants to identify if the object was a gun. More recently, researchers have used video games to see how people react to suspects of different races.
Josh Correll, a University of Colorado at Boulder psychology professor, ran some of these tests with a shooter video game. His initial findings showed police officers generally did a good job of avoiding shooting unarmed targets of all races, but, when shooting was warranted, officers pulled the trigger more quickly against black suspects than white ones. This suggests that officers exhibit some racial bias in how quickly they pull the trigger, but not when it comes to deciding whether to shoot a target.
Correll cautioned that these simulations aren't perfectly representative of the real world, because, he said, "What goes on in the street is an open question." Real policing situations are often much more complicated. Factors — such as a real threat to the officer's life and whether a bullet will miss and accidentally hit a passerby — can make the situation much more confusing to police. If cops, as Correll's initial simulations suggest, tend to shoot black suspects more quickly, it's possible that could lead to more errors in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them." "
Perhaps the most optimistic part of the research is that, over time, evidence of implicit biases can be reduced through practice and experience. The longer officers and other participants took part in the simulations, the less likely they were to make errors. Some of Correll's research also found that certain types of training can diminish racial bias.
Fridell, of the University of South Florida, capitalizes on this research to help police departments around the country train their officers all along the chain of command. The training relies mainly on the types of shooting simulations used by Correll and other researchers to test cops, but the training sessions are redeveloped to purposely disprove stereotypes against race, gender, age, and other factors. As a result, the training sessions help officers learn to focus more on other cues — body language, what someone is holding — instead of race. (This training isn't generally required by law, but it's becoming more common as concerns grow about racism in the criminal justice system.)
Fridell said that this training needs to look beyond race. "In the same way we as humans have stereotypes linking blacks to crime and aggressiveness, we also have stereotypes of lack of crime and aggressiveness," she said, pointing to women and the elderly as two examples. "For a police officer, this might lead him to be under-vigilant against certain groups."
Neill Franklin, a retired major who served for 34 years in the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department, said the need for this kind of training is something he witnessed in his everyday work. As the commander in training units in both the state and local police forces, he often pushed for officers to consider their bias before taking any official action as a cop.
"[W]e all have this subconscious bias. Even me, as a black police officer, I felt the same," Franklin said. "When I would be in certain parts of the city and see young black males, it would run through my mind, 'What are they up to? Are they dealing?' That's because of what we've been bombarded with for so many years from so many different directions, including the media."
Beyond the simulations and training, Fridell said community policing, which focuses on building ties between local police departments and their communities, can help break down stereotypes. This is what's called the contact theory: positive interactions with stereotyped groups can reduce explicit and implicit biases. A cop who interacts with black residents in his town might realize that many of his previous prejudices, implicit or not, weren't warranted.
Community policing can work in two directions as well. Just as police's perceptions toward the community change, so do community perceptions toward police. This could, Fridell explained, make communities less defensive — and therefore less aggressive — during police interactions.
Franklin, now the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, worries the training might not be enough in the face of perverse incentives in the criminal justice system. Local police departments are under constant pressure to make enough arrests to obtain federal grants, which are often tied in part to, for instance, the number of drug arrests within a city. As is the case in Ferguson, the tickets issued by police officers can also make up a huge source of money for local governments, which might encourage police to issue as many tickets as possible to bring in more revenue.
Given those incentives, Franklin said, police are encouraged to go after "low-hanging fruit" often found in minority communities that lack political and financial power. This magnifies the effects of implicit bias. In the end, Franklin suggested the revenue incentive is the root of the problem — and the issue of racial disparities won't go away until that's resolved.
For more information about racial disparities and the Ferguson protests, read the full explainer and check out the two-minute video below:
Mother Jones's Mark Follman provides new insight into the tense relationship between the black community in Ferguson, Missouri, and local law enforcement following the shooting of Michael Brown. He reports that shortly after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed the 18-year-old on August 9, Brown's grieving mother helped set up a makeshift memorial at the site of the shooting. Police then reportedly ran over the memorial with their cars, and at least one officer let his police dog urinate on the memorial site.
From Mother Jones:
[Missouri state Rep. Sharon Pace] purchased some tea lights for the family, and around 7 p.m. she joined Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, and others as they placed the candles and sprinkled flowers on the ground where Brown had died. "They spelled out his initials with rose petals over the bloodstains," Pace recalled.
By then, police had prohibited all vehicles from entering Canfield Drive except for their own. Soon the candles and flowers had been smashed, after police drove over them.
"That made people in the crowd mad," Pace said, "and it made me mad." Some residents began walking in front of police vehicles at the end of the block to prevent them from driving in.
Jon Stewart was on vacation for the past couple weeks as the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, played out. Naturally, he returned to The Daily Show Tuesday night with a few things to say about the issue.
Besides getting in a few shots at Fox News for its dismissive coverage of Ferguson, Stewart also makes a larger point: For many black Americans, the police shooting and killing of Michael Brown is so scary and upsetting because they feel it could happen to them, their own sons, or their husbands. Everyday discrimination, whether implicit or explicit, is still a constant reality for minorities.
"Recently, we sent a correspondent and a producer to a building in this liberal bastion, where we were going to tape an interview," Stewart said. "The producer — white, dressed in what could only be described as homeless elf attire and a pretty strong 5-o'-clock-from-the-previous-week shadow — strode confidently into the building, preceding our humble correspondent, a gentleman of color, dressed resplendently in a tailored suit. Who do you think was stopped? Let me give you a hint: the black guy. And that shit happens all the time. All of it. Race is there, and it is a constant."
Since August 9, when Wilson shot and killed Brown, an unarmed teenager, protesters have taken to the streets of the St. Louis suburb and cities around the United States to insist that Wilson be charged in Brown's death. Their demand, emblazoned on T-shirts, inked onto handmade signs, and voiced in chants of "no justice, no peace," speaks to a widely held fear that the courts and police will be more interested in protecting the rights of a white police officer with no disciplinary record than the rights of a black 18-year-old.
Local and federal investigations into the shooting are underway, and a St. Louis County grand jury has already begun to hear evidence about the case. That does not mean that a conviction, or even a trial, is guaranteed. The justice system is still a system: there are rules that must be followed, steps that must be taken, and criteria that must be fulfilled. Here's what you need to know.
Wilson could theoretically be prosecuted in state court, in federal court, or both, because state and federal authorities have concurrent jurisdiction over the shooting. At the moment, both state and federal investigations appear to be moving forward.
A state prosecution would, in some ways, be simpler. If the evidence supports a criminal case, state authorities could prosecute Wilson for murder or manslaughter, or just assault, which may be easier to prove than a federal civil rights offense, said Kevin Curran, president of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "The state just has to show that he pulled the trigger, and he intended to pull the trigger, and there weren't any defenses." A federal prosecution, by contrast, would have to prove an additional element: that Wilson willfully deprived Brown of his civil rights.
Still, some aspects of a state prosecution might be difficult. State and local prosecutors work closely with the police, on whom they regularly rely for testimony in their cases. Aggressive prosecution of police misconduct can risk jeopardizing that relationship, which may make prosecutors reluctant to move forward cases involving police misconduct. In addition, the state prosecutors may face evidentiary problems if the St. Louis County investigation was insufficient. (That problem could possibly be solved by access to the results of the FBI investigation, however.)
Simple murder is not a federal offense, but it is a federal crime for a police officer to deprive someone of his rights under the Constitution. If a victim dies, the perpetrator can be sentenced to life in prison or even the death penalty. That means the DOJ could prosecute Wilson under federal law for violating Brown's civil rights, if the evidence supports that charge.
Because of a doctrine called "separate sovereignty," successive state and criminal prosecutions do not violate the double-jeopardy clause of the Constitution, which usually prohibits trying someone more than once for the same crime. That is why, for instance, the Los Angeles Police Department officers who assaulted Rodney King could be tried and convicted in federal court after they were initially acquitted in the Los Angeles Superior Court.
Federal civil rights prosecutions are rare, though, and convictions are even rarer. A study from Syracuse University's TRAC program found that between 1986 and 2003, fewer than 2 percent of civil rights matters referred to the DOJ were ever prosecuted. Out of 43,331 referrals, 690 were actually prosecuted — and of those, 423 resulted in a conviction.
The St. Louis County attorney's office began presenting evidence about the shooting to a grand jury on August 20. That means that the state case probably won't move forward unless the grand jury votes to indict, which won't happen for a while — if it happens at all.
St. Louis County Attorney Robert McCulloch has said that "absolutely everything will be presented to the grand jury. Every scrap of paper that we have. Every photograph that was taken." As a result, he expects the grand jury investigation to last at least until October.
Grand jury investigations are secret. Not only are they closed to the public, grand jurors are not permitted to reveal the evidence that they heard. In a grand jury proceeding, the prosecutor presents evidence about the case, including witness testimony, and asks the grand jury to determine whether an indictment is warranted.
The prosecutor has almost complete discretion as to what evidence the grand jury hears. There is no obligation to present defenses or alternative theories of the case, and because the grand jury is not an adversarial proceeding, there is no cross-examination of witnesses. In Missouri, a grand jury vote in favor of an indictment does not have to be unanimous. If nine out of twelve grand jurors vote to indict, then that is considered a "true bill."
As a result, it is generally considered to be easy for a prosecutor to get a grand jury to indict. The joke within the legal profession is that a decent prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict "a ham sandwich."
That doesn't mean that will be the case this time. McCulloch's involvement in the case has already been highly controversial, with many observers doubting his dedication to prosecuting it. More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition demanding McCulloch's removal. Petitioners say his decision not to bring charges in a previous shooting, in which police officers killed two unarmed black men, as evidence that his continued involvement in the Brown case "will only sow further distrust and discord." On August 15, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley announced that he would lead an effort to remove McCulloch from the case. But a few days later, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) announced that he would not ask McCulloch to step down from the case, citing a need to limit "legal uncertainty."
McCulloch's grand jury strategy has also provoked criticism. Alex Little, a former federal prosecutor with experience working on FBI investigations, said that the prosecutor's decision to present all of the evidence, and to take such a long period of time, suggests that he could be using the grand jury as a "delaying tactic."
If the grand jury returns an indictment, a conviction may be unlikely — juries are notoriously reluctant to convict police officers in use-of-force cases.
The precise reasons for that phenomenon are difficult to know because jury deliberations take place in private, which makes them hard to study. (A group of University of Chicago researchers secretly recorded several civil jury deliberations in the 1950s, but their work provoked such outrage that Congress passed a law making such eavesdropping illegal.)
But many experts have noted that police brutality cases turn the usual logic of a criminal trial on its head, by making the police officer the alleged "criminal" and the "criminal" the alleged victim (regardless of whether the victim is an actual criminal). Judge Guido Calabresi, in a discussion of civil suits in police brutality cases, wrote that "jurors are considerably more reluctant to identify with a criminal defendant who brings a tort action against the police for violation of his rights," because "in these cases, the plaintiff is a criminal and the jurors do not see themselves in that way." Jury sympathies are most likely even stronger in criminal cases, where the standard of proof is "beyond a reasonable doubt," not just the preponderance of the evidence that's generally required in civil cases.
Curran said that Missouri courts tend to be sympathetic to police, even in cases involving officers' questionable use of force. There is a sense among prosecutors, police, and juries alike, Curran said, that "cops have to be free to do their job, and it's a dangerous job, and they're under threat, so they have to have the freedom to be able to respond to perceived threats." Juries tend to look favorably on officers' claims that their use of force was necessary, because they "lean towards the officer's right to be safe." As a result, Curran said, local courts are "all basically pro-police."
Police officers are subject to different rules about the use of deadly force than ordinary citizens. As my colleague Dara Lind explained at length, a police officer is allowed to use deadly force in two circumstances, both of which require the officer to determine that the target poses a threat to others. The first is when the officer believes that the target is directly threatening him or another person. The second is when the officer has probable cause to believe that the person is a suspect fleeing the scene of a violent felony.
That rule comes from a Supreme Court case called Tennessee v. Garner, in which the majority opinion explained:
"The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable. It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape. Where the suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others, the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not justify the use of deadly force to do so. It is no doubt unfortunate when a suspect who is in sight escapes, but the fact that the police arrive a little late or are a little slower afoot does not always justify killing the suspect. A police officer may not seize an unarmed, nondangerous suspect by shooting him dead."
That means that for Wilson's shooting to have been legally justified, he will need to credibly argue that he believed either (1) Brown was threatening his life or someone else's life, or (2) that Brown was fleeing from the commission of a violent felony.
The latter argument seems less likely to be successful than the first one. Although Brown apparently was a suspect in a robbery of a local convenience store, it is not clear whether Wilson was even aware of that at the time he shot Brown. And, although the Ferguson police chief has described the alleged crime as a "strong-arm robbery," it involved no weapons, and the only physical contact was when the man who appears to be Brown shoved a clerk on his way out of the store.
For Wilson to take advantage of the "violent felon" exception, he would need to show that he knew about the robbery, that he believed Brown had committed it, and that he believed it had been a violent crime that made Brown a threat to the community. That means that Wilson would probably need to present evidence of police radio calls that described Brown as the suspect and the crime as a violent one.
Initial police statements suggest that Wilson is more likely to pursue a self-defense strategy. According to the Washington Post, Wilson told investigators that he shot Brown out of fear for his life when the teen "charged at him." St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said during a news briefing that Brown and Wilson had a physical altercation, during which Brown tried to grab Wilson's gun before running away.
In the days since the shooting, tremendous federal law enforcement resources have been devoted to investigating Brown's death. The FBI sent a team of more than 40 agents to Ferguson, and they have been canvassing the neighborhood where the shooting took place. Little, the former federal prosecutor, told me that this is "a massive number of agents for a case like this." In a standard investigation into a police officer's use of force, Little said, you would have just two or three agents, which means that "40 is just exponentially larger than you would expect."
That's good, Little noted, because witness testimony and physical evidence are particularly important for prosecutions of this nature. Brown cannot testify about what happened, because he is no longer alive. So the testimony of eyewitnesses, and physical evidence from the scene, will be vital to determining what actually happened.
In this case, initial police statements suggest that Darren Wilson's defense will be that he shot Michael Brown in self-defense, after the teenager attempted to grab Wilson's gun during a physical struggle. Since Wilson's gun was fired at least once from inside his car and Brown was more than 30 feet away from the officer when he died, physical evidence will be able to provide some insight into how the shooting occurred and from what range various shots were fired. Already, preliminary autopsy results show that Brown was shot at least six times, and that he was facing Wilson when the shots were fired.
But only eyewitness testimony will be able to answer other questions, such as whether anyone saw Brown grab Wilson's gun, and whether Brown surrendered before Wilson fired the shots that killed him. That means that it's vital for those witness statements to be collected as part of the investigation.
Although the FBI is now gathering evidence, the case is also being investigated by the St. Louis County Police, who took it on at the request of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson. (Although the county prosecutor has already begun to present evidence to the grand jury, that does not necessarily mean that the county investigation is complete.)
It appears that the county investigators were slow to begin gathering evidence. They did not interview a key eyewitness in the case, Brown's friend Dorian Johnson, until Wednesday, August 13, according to Johnson's attorney. But it's really best to interview witnesses immediately, because eyewitness testimony tends to decline in quality over time. "What you want," said Little, is for "people to give statements that are memorialized very soon after the shooting."
The best way to do that is for witnesses to be interviewed by police. But some of the witnesses gave detailed interviews to the press shortly after the shooting. These interviews, Little said, could be the next best thing to actual police statements, because they recorded the witnesses' testimony soon after the shooting. If the witness sticks to what they said on TV in the trial, it will "help their credibility," he said.
Media interviews can also be risky. If witnesses change their stories over time, then the statements they gave to the press can be used to "impeach" their testimony — to call attention to the inconsistencies between the witnesses' testimony and the way they told their stories previously. If that happens, it will undermine their credibility.
Although the federal investigation will likely focus primarily on Wilson's conduct as an individual, there is also a federal conspiracy statute that would allow the DOJ to prosecute other Ferguson police officers — or the Ferguson Police Department as a whole — if the investigation determines that they conspired to deprive Brown of his civil rights.
In order to support a conspiracy prosecution, the federal investigation would need to uncover evidence of intentional wrongdoing, not just incompetence. For instance, if there is evidence that the other officers who responded to the scene after the shooting prevented Brown from being resuscitated so that he would not be able to testify, or destroyed evidence in order to protect Wilson, then they could be prosecuted on conspiracy charges.
However, at this stage, a conspiracy prosecution appears to be unlikely. Although there was apparently no attempt to resuscitate Brown, the New York Times reports that paramedics did respond to the scene and examine him, where they found that he had suffered "injuries incompatible with life." And although some of the department's actions following the shooting seem questionable — such as leaving Brown's body in the street, at times uncovered, for four hours — that could just be the result of mistakes or disorganization, rather than intentional wrongdoing.
"It comes out of the opening scene," says Mitchell, who notes that "like many teenagers," Brown was indeed "no angel." Okay, but would the New York Times have chosen this term — which is commonly used to describe miscreants and thugs — if the victim had been white? Mitchell: "I think, actually, we have a nuanced story about the young man and if it had been a white young man in the same exact situation, if that’s where our reporting took us, we would have written it in the same way." When asked whether she thought that "no angel" was a loaded term in this context, Mitchell said she didn't believe it was. "The story ... talks about both problems and promise," she notes.
The Times's response has done little to calm the storm. Sean McElwee, research assistant at Demos, dug into the archives to compare the Times's description of Brown to the newspaper's previous descriptions of serial killers and terrorists. Of course, comparing articles produced decades apart by different writers and editors isn't an exact science. But it does lend context to the widespread frustration over how young black men are portrayed in the media. See a compilation of McElwee's tweets below:
Shortly after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot at least six times by police officer Darren Wilson, his corpse left on the pavement for four hours in a pool of his own blood, his mother gave a harrowing interview to a local St. Louis TV station KMOV.
"Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many," she said desperately, her voice rising in anger. "Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don't got nothing to live for anyway. 'They're going to try to take me out anyway.'"
Listening to her is a gut-punch, not just because of her naked grief, but because she is speaking a larger, tragic truth. And then comes the second gut-punch: the people who really need to hear this aren't listening.
These people are the ones who don't think racism has anything to do with the targeted policing, crime-ridden neighborhoods, terrible schools, and abject poverty experienced by many black Americans, because racism is so ingrained in the fabric of America that they can't even see it. They are the ones who have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to an as-yet-unnecessary legal fund for Wilson, a man whose only claim to fame is that he killed a black kid under what can most generously be described as suspicious circumstances. They're the ones for whom the death of an unarmed black person at the hands of a white person sparks cognitive dissonance of such magnitude that all they can do is sputter, "But what about black-on-black crime?"
This last is a recurring theme. When killings that seem inflected with racial animus become big news, some prefer to talk instead about how no one is paying enough attention to black murderers. (See Time's Joe Klein for a really amazing example.) Media Matters pinpointed other recent instances of this phenomenon: during an August 17 taping of Meet the Press, the Wall Street Journal's Jason Riley said, "Let's not pretend that our morgues and cemeteries are full of young black men because cops are shooting them. The reality is that it's because other black people are shooting them." He also noted that "we need to talk about black criminality." Rush Limbaugh claimed that no one cares about black homicide in Chicago because it's not "mixed race." Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum, in an August 13 broadcast, asked: "What about the children who are being killed in the streets in Chicago? What about black-on-black violence? Where is Al Sharpton on that? Where is the president on that?"
One of the primary problems with this argument is that "race-on-race" crime is not a phenomenon unique to black Americans. (Jamelle Bouie debunked this myth in the Daily Beast, and my colleague Matt Yglesias recently exposed the scourge of white-on-white murder.) But even though the term "black-on-black" crime is misleading, this much is true: a disproportionate number of murder victims are black. African Americans make up about 13 percent of the US population and 50 percent of homicide victims, according to the FBI's (imperfect) data. But not only is it unoriginal and transparent to trumpet these stats whenever tough questions about systemic racism arise, it's also untrue that so-called violence in black communities is being ignored.
It's no coincidence that black-on-black crime alarmists frequently reference Chicago's murder rate. They might not realize that it's the first thing that comes to their minds in these moments precisely because they've heard so much about it (this despite the city having far from the highest murder rate in the country, according to Pew). It's been covered all over mainstream media and far outside of Chicago.
There have been stories on the topic in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, to name just a few domestic publications, plus international news outlets from France to England to China to Ecuador. There have been segments about it on CNN, MSNBC (including PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton), Dateline, 48 Hours, and Nightline. TV host Roland Martin has suggested that Mayor Rahm Emanuel bring in the National Guard to take control of Chicago's streets. And as for President Obama, he recently launched My Brother's Keeper, which, whether you like the initiative or not, was designed specifically to help reverse negative outcomes for young men of color.
It's also pretty insulting to suggest that the people living in Chicago's black neighborhoods, and in poor black and brown communities across the country, simply shrug their shoulders when loved ones are murdered. In Chicago alone, there are community and local government programs working to help stem the tide of violence. On top of that, there are the mothers' groups, the church groups, the rallies, and the efforts from local entertainers.
Perhaps the problem here is that many of the people who ring the black-on-black crime alarm when it suits them are the very ones who aren't paying much attention to the communities where these lives are being lost. Perhaps they are the the ones who aren't listening. Because if they were, they would understand that the disproportionate black murder rate and the targeted, violent policing of black people that fueled Ferguson's protests are directly related. In fact, they are symptoms of the same disease.
The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates has written expertly on the many ways that current racial disparities are a result of decades and decades of racist housing policies and practices. These policies effectively robbed black people of the American dream — segregating neighborhoods, prohibiting black residents from accumulating wealth, and creating pockets of poverty.
The effects of this systemic racism show up in almost every meaningful aspect of American life. Black and Latino children are more likely to attend schools that are segregated by both race and income. White families are about six times more wealthy than black families. Just 43.5 percent of black Americans own homes, about 20 percentage points below the national rate. The African-American poverty rate is 27.2 percent, while the white poverty rate is 9.7 percent. In July, national unemployment was at 6.2 percent, but for black people, it was 11.4 percent. And on top of these disparities, there's America's baldly racist criminal justice system, which, as Brown's mother tried to explain after her son's death, does a thorough job of convincing black youth that their lives are not of value.
There's an important conversation to be had about violence in poor black neighborhoods, but not without also talking about the inequality running through all parts of residents' lives. Unfortunately, many of the people who are clamoring for a bigger spotlight on "black-on-black crime" seem uninterested in discussing the past and present policies that have fostered it.
As Coates wrote in a recent essay, "The politics of respectability are, at their root, the politics of changing the subject — the last resort for those who can not bear the agony of looking their country in the eye. The policy of America has been, for most of its history, white supremacy. The high rates of violence in black neighborhoods do not exist outside of these facts — they evidence them."
By zeroing in on urban violence or sagging pants or so-called "thuggish behavior" (a popular theme among Darren Wilson supporters) — in other words, by blaming racial disparities on black culture — black America's critics can completely ignore an uncomfortable fact about the US: that racism still exists in our institutions, and its effects are devastating. Brown's death has sparked a number of important discussions about police brutality, our fundamentally flawed justice system, crime in black communities, and how all of these things are part of a larger national issue. But I fear the people who most need to hear this won't be listening. Instead, they'll keep pointing fingers at gang members in Chicago or donating dollars to cops who kill — anything to avoid the truth about America's greatest failure.
The incident reports for the Michael Brown shooting contain no new information, with many potential answers about the shooting either redacted or left out completely.
The reports detail who was involved in the shooting and where it happened. Neither explains the lead-up to the event, how it played out, or why. They don't include officer Darren Wilson's side of the story.
A spokesperson for the St. Louis County Police Department told TIME that Wilson's version of the events is excluded because the investigation is ongoing, which allows the department to withhold some information.
The details may be missing from the Ferguson Police Department's report because the department quickly handed the the criminal investigation of the shooting to the St. Louis County Police Department. (The US Department of Justice is also conducting its own investigation into whether the shooting violated Brown's civil rights.)
Still, the ACLU criticized the Ferguson Police's lack of transparency. "It's been nearly two weeks and Ferguson is still hiding information regarding the fatal shooting of Michael Brown," said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. "It is long past time for the Ferguson Police Department to begin building public trust and the first step is to release a complete copy of the incident report."
Here's the cover of next week's New Yorker, drawn by artist Eric Drooker.
"Hands up" has become a defining gesture of the Ferguson protests, a symbol of surrender turned into one of defiance. See photographs of the "hands up" gesture throughout the Ferguson protests here.
Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown on August 9, did not have a broken eye socket after his encounter with Brown, an anonymous source "close to the investigation" told CNN's Julian Cummings:
Reports that Ofc Darren Wilson had a bruised or fractured eye socket are false. #ferguson A source close to the investigation tells CNN— Julian Cummings CNN (@JulianCummings) August 21, 2014
Wilson was taken to the hospital after the shooting. He had xrays which came back negative. He was treated for a swollen face. #ferguson— Julian Cummings CNN (@JulianCummings) August 21, 2014
Reports that Wilson had fractured his eye socket also originated from an anonymous source, so it's hard to compare the credibility of the two nameless informants.
But the story reported by CNN matches what Ferguson police officials have publicly said about Wilson's injuries. Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson, for instance, said that Wilson's face was swollen and that he went to the emergency room following the shooting.
Ferguson, Missouri, doesn't have a particularly high crime rate, but that's not readily apparent when looking at the city's high levels of law enforcement. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court resolved three warrants and 1.5 cases per household, according to a new report from ArchCity Defenders.
How is it possible to have so many cases? The simple answer is for-profit policing, as The New School's Jeff Smith explained in a previous interview. "These municipalities are not well-funded, they don't have big tax bases, and a lot of the shopping centers, movie theaters, and big stores have gone out of businesses. Consequently, they're strapped for cash," Smith said. "As a result, places like Ferguson get almost a quarter of their municipal budget from traffic-related fines. Other places have even higher percentages."
The ArchCity Defenders' report supports this point. It found fines and court fees are the city's second largest source of revenue, making up $2.6 million, or about 10 percent of Ferguson's 2013 budget.
ArchCity Defenders calculated that at an 80 percent conviction rate, the average guilty verdict costs $275. That's hundreds of dollars per household.
It's worth noting that this big cost is being placed on a city with major economic troubles. Ferguson's unemployment rate, for instance, is 14.3 percent, more than double than St. Louis County (6.1 percent) and Missouri (6.6 percent).
The evidence also shows that this cost more often applies to Ferguson's black residents than their white counterparts. A racial profiling report from Missouri's attorney general found that, although black people make up about 67 percent of Ferguson's population, they're involved in about 86 percent of police stops.
"Many will tell us, they feel that it's driving while black in their own community," Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, previously told Vox's Sarah Kliff. "They feel like they're being harassed and it creates this constant low level of stress."
To learn more about the problems in Ferguson, read Sarah Kliff's interview with the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, the full explainer, the full timeline, and watch the two-minute video below:
To skip to the latest updates, click here.
On August 9, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was killed by a police officer named Darren Wilson in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Eyewitnesses to the shooting report that Brown was killed while attempting to surrender, but police say that Brown assaulted the officer before the shooting.
The incident provoked immediate anger and frustration in the community and around the country. The killing of Eric Garner, also an unarmed black man, by New York City police last month revived a public conversation about the history of police violence against black men, and the killing of Brown has inflamed it.
Protests began in the neighborhood immediately after Brown was shot, and continued throughout the weekend. On Sunday night, Ferguson erupted into civil unrest, with reports of looting, arson, and gunshots. Although the protests in the days that followed were largely nonviolent, an escalating and militarized police presence in the streets of Ferguson did nothing to ease the tension or soothe a concerned community, and local law enforcement's use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and dogs further eroded the trust between residents and police. On Thursday, the tide seemed to turn after Gov. Jay Nixon put the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge of security in Ferguson. But the next day, Ferguson police revealed details from the day of the shooting, and that night tensions escalated at protests.
Here's what's known, what's being disputed, and what happens next.
To skip to certain sections, click the links below:
1) What we know about Michael Brown
2) What we know about the shooting
3) What's in dispute about the shooting
4) What we know about the first weekend's protests
5) What's in dispute about the first weekend's protests
6) What we know about the unrest on Sunday, August 10
7) Continued protests — and police dispersals — on Monday, August 11
8) Continued tensions on Tuesday, August 12
9) Arrests and police aggression on Wednesday, August 13
10) "Reframing" the chain of command on Thursday, August 14
11) On Friday, August 15, police reveal details from the day of the shooting, tensions escalate after dark
12) On Saturday, August 16, the governor sets a curfew in Ferguson
13) On Sunday, August 17, chaos returns to Ferguson
14) On Monday, August 18, the National Guard goes to Ferguson
15) Relative quiet on Tuesday, August 19
16) The smoke clears in Ferguson
17) Some of the context for community anger in Ferguson
18) What we know about the investigation into Brown's shooting
19) Efforts to rebuild race and community relations in Ferguson
— Brown was an 18-year-old student.
— He graduated from Normandy High School in St. Louis in the spring of 2014. He was scheduled to start classes at Vatterott College, a Missouri trade college, on Monday, August 11.
— On the day of his death, Brown was visiting his grandmother, Desuirea Harris, who lives in Ferguson, a working-class suburb of St. Louis.
— Brown was shot multiple times and killed by a Ferguson police officer in the early afternoon of Saturday, August 9, outside an apartment complex. Autopsies have concluded that Brown was shot at least six times.
— Brown was unarmed. All shell casings found at the scene were from the police officer's gun.
— At least one shot was fired from the police car. Brown was killed while he was standing about 35 feet away from the car.
— The name of the police officer, Darren Wilson, was announced in a Friday, August 15, press conference by Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told reporters on Sunday morning that Wilson had been a police officer for six years, and that Belmar was not aware of any problems the officer had during that time.
What happened before Brown was shot
— Multiple eyewitness accounts say that Brown was killed while attempting to surrender.
— Brown's friend Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown at the time, says that the two of them were walking in the middle of the street when a police car approached, and the officer told them to get on the sidewalk.
— Eyewitness Piaget Crenshaw says that Johnson, Brown and the officer got into a verbal confrontation, and the officer attempted to put Brown in the police car. When Brown began to flee, with his hands in the air, she says, the officer got out of the car and started shooting at Brown. (Crenshaw has photos of the shooting, which have been turned over to the police.)
— Another eyewitness told the press that the officer was in his car when he started shooting at the boys. (At least one shot was fired from the police car.)
— Johnson says that he and Brown started running when they heard the first shot. He told local news station KMOV that Wilson "shot again, and once my friend felt that shot, he turned around and put his hands in the air. He started to get down and the officer still approached with his weapon drawn and fired several more shots."
— Meanwhile, St. Louis County police, who have been called in to investigate Brown's death, say that Brown assaulted Wilson before he was killed. St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar told reporters on August 10 that Brown shoved the officer back into the police car, "physically assaulted" him, and attempted to grab the officer's gun. According to Belmar, the officer only began firing at Brown after the assault.
— According to Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson during a briefing on August 12, the officer who shot Johnson was injured during the encounter. One side of Wilson's face was swollen, Jackson said.
How many times Brown was shot
— On Sunday, Belmar told reporters that Brown was shot "more than just a couple [times], but I don't think it was many more than that."
— Johnson's eyewitness account indicates that four shots were fired. Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, says she was told that Brown was shot eight times.
Saturday, August 9
— A crowd gathered at the scene soon after Brown was shot, and their protest extended through much of Saturday afternoon. A subsequent protest at the Ferguson Police Department headquarters happened Saturday evening. The number of demonstrators varied: a CNN report says that there were up to 1,000 protesters at the peak of the demonstrations, while other reports say there were about 200.
— Brown's body was left at the scene for several hours after the shooting. Police said that they needed the time to conduct "due diligence," saying that the crowd made it difficult for them to process evidence properly. Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson later told reporters that he was "uncomfortable" with the amount of time the body had been in the street.
— Protesters held their hands in the air and chanted "Don't shoot me," "We are Michael Brown," "No justice, no peace," and "Killer cops have got to go." Brown's stepfather, Louis Head, held a sign that read "Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son!!!"
— During Saturday's demonstration, around 2 p.m., a series of shots were fired in the area near the crime scene.
— More than 100 officers from 15 different police departments were called to the scene during Saturday's protests.
Sunday, August 10
— On Sunday, August 10, nonviolent protests continued, but with a heavy police presence.
— One CNN video report, flagged by Colorlines, shows a police officer saying to protesters, "Bring it, you fucking animals! Bring it!" (at the 00:15 mark):
— Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson told reporters that Saturday's protest at the crime scene "probably bordered on riot conditions." Police say that the shots that were heard in the area during the protest were "warning shots" fired by protesters, and that protesters were heard shouting, "Kill the police." According to the police, the purpose of the 60 reinforcements from other police departments was to protect public safety in a dangerous atmosphere.
— However, other accounts from Saturday's protest don't indicate that anyone shouted "kill the police," and several eyewitnesses say that the police misheard or misinterpreted what protesters were shouting: "Killer cops have got to go" and "No justice, no peace."
— There's no confirmation as to the context of the gunshots fired during Saturday's protest.
— Reports also differed about the tone of Sunday's protests prior to the rioting. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch said that protesters were "taunting" the police officers, but did not quote any protesters engaging in taunts.
— As protests continued on Sunday night, others in Ferguson began to engage in looting and violence. St. Louis alderman Antonio French has said on Twitter that looting began at a local QuikTrip convenience store. The store was later set on fire:
— Looting spread to the nearby neighborhood of Dellwood and continued late into the night on Sunday.
— A staff photographer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that when the looting began, there were no police at or around the QuikTrip. As looting continued, police helicopters moved into the area. A SWAT team moved in and used tear gas to disperse the looters.
— As of Thursday morning, the total amount of damage caused Sunday night hadn't been calculated. The Ferguson Police Department told Los Angeles station KTLA that at least 20 police cars were damaged. Police did not tell the Washington Post how many people were arrested, but reports indicate "dozens" of arrests:
— Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson told reporters on Wednesday that 32 people were arrested during the looting on Sunday.
— Monday, August 11, was supposed to be the first day of school for Jennings School District, one of the four school districts that cover Ferguson. Administrators canceled school out of fear for student safety.
— On Monday, August 11, a group of Ferguson residents got together to clean up the QuikTrip.
— After Sunday night's unrest, a protest and rally scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday morning was canceled, and the mayor of Ferguson said that anyone who attempted to show up to the rally would be arrested.
— Regardless, people still turned up at police headquarters to protest. Police officers were there with riot gear.
— After about two hours, the police succeeded in getting the crowd to disperse and started making arrests.
— On Monday night, protests continued. Groups gathered in the street, raising their hands in surrender and chanting, "Hands up, don't shoot." It's become the unofficial motto of the Ferguson protests.
— Police also attempted to disperse these protests, moving down W. Florissant, the main street in the neighborhood. This time, they used tear gas and explosives to clear crowds and fired rubber bullets. One report indicates that police cocked their rifles at protesters. Police told protesters to "go home," but several residents protested that they were trapped in cul-de-sacs while the main road was closed off. Police also threatened press with arrest if they didn't leave the scene.
— One family was standing in their backyard, which borders W. Florissant, while holding their hands up in protest. Police fired a tear gas canister at them, into the backyard:
— One resident was challenged by police when he put his hands up after stepping out of his car.
— The evening ended with a standoff between police and about two dozen residents who were trying to get home. Wesley Lowery, a Washington Post reporter, was at the scene:
The final standoff came just before 11 p.m. Officers backed up their formation almost all the way to the housing complex where Brown was shot.
As they regrouped, the two dozen residents who remained outside approached with hands in the air.
"Can we go home? Do we need our hands up? Are you going to shoot us?"
The police, weapons at the ready, responded by telling them to stop asking questions and "just go home."
Moments later, the cops pressed forward and cleared the street for good. As they passed, some remaining protesters threw rocks, and residents shouted from their windows: "This is our home. Leave us alone."
— In all, police made several arrests on Monday. Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson told reporters on Wednesday that around eight people had been arrested for unlawful assembly over the course of the last several days of protests.
— Police said no injuries were reported, and on Wednesday, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson said that "nobody got hurt" in the response to protests. However, pictures circulated on social media of protesters with bruises and injuries from rubber and wooden bullets, and of one resident being loaded into an ambulance.
— On Tuesday, August 12, the FAA issued a no-fly zone over Ferguson through Monday, August 18. The purpose of the no-fly zone, the agency said, is "to provide a safe haven for law enforcement activities" — to clear the airspace for police helicopters. On Wednesday, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson told reporters that he did not know anything about the no-fly zone and had not requested it.
— On Tuesday evening, there was a brief standoff between protesters and police at the QuikTrip that had been looted on Sunday. Protesters became upset when police arrived in armored vehicles.
— Protesters amassed in downtown Ferguson again on Tuesday night. Police were again there in force, blocking streets to downtown, and reporters were again told they would be arrested if they didn't leave. On Wednesday, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson said that he didn't know reporters had been threatened, and said, "No, I want free access."
— Most protesters, however, made their way down the other end of W. Florissant to a church for an evening service at which Al Sharpton was scheduled to speak. A group of young residents continued to protest nonviolently outside the church — even removing someone who they were worried would agitate the crowd.
— Tuesday night's protests were quiet and nonviolent for most of the evening.
— Around 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time, a crowd began to advance toward the bridge where police were holding a line to block traffic. Cops warned the crowd and told demonstrators to get off the street.
— Around 1 a.m. Central Time, St. Louis County police shot a man near Ferguson. Police say the man was pointing a gun at an officer. It is not clear whether the shooting was related to the protests. The man is in critical condition as of Wednesday morning.
— On Wednesday, August 13, the Ferguson Police Department released its first official statement since the shooting. The statement read, in part:
We only ask that any groups wishing to assemble in prayer or in protest do so only during daylight hours in an organized and respectful manner. We further ask all those wishing to demonstrate or assemble disperse well before the evening hours to ensure the safety of the participants and the safety of the community.
This statement didn't set an official curfew, which would have justified arresting residents who were out after a certain hour. Instead, the police appeared to be hoping to set an unofficial, voluntary curfew.
Asked about the statement on Wednesday, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson said that there was no curfew, and that protesters who remained out after dark would not be arrested "as long as they're peaceful and not blocking the roads."
— Late Wednesday afternoon, protesters blocked both lanes of West Florissant again. Police began making arrests quickly. A large SWAT team arrived to clear the protesters, as well as a tactical vehicle. Cops continued to push protesters back for several blocks. Those who did not move were detained.
— The situation was then calm until around 8:30 p.m. Central Time, when cops began attempting to push protesters back another 25 feet. Protesters threw bottles and rocks; police and reporters say that one protester threw a Molotov cocktail, and police also say one officer was hit with a brick and broke his ankle. In response, police almost immediately started firing tear gas at the crowd. After telling them that this was no longer a peaceful protest and ordering them to leave the area, police used sound cannons to disperse the crowd and fired tear gas canisters into the area — including into neighborhood backyards.
— On Thursday, Antonio French posted an image of a woman who had been hit with a rubber bullet. (Warning: The image is graphic.)
— One news crew had tear gas fired at them while they were setting up for a shoot:
— Earlier in the evening, two reporters, Ryan J. Reilly of the Huffington Post and Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, were arrested in a McDonald's after a SWAT team ordered residents to clear it out. Watch the arrest play out in this video:
— Late in the evening, protesters lined up outside the Ferguson Police Station.
— On Thursday, August 14, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon told voters he would be "reframing" the chain of command among police in Ferguson. The office of Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri confirmed that the St. Louis County Police Department, which had been in charge during Wednesday night's protests, would be removed from Ferguson. The chief of the St. Louis city police department also announced that his department would not be participating in Ferguson on Thursday night.
— On Thursday afternoon, Governor Nixon formally announced that the Missouri Highway Patrol, headed by Captain Ron Johnson, would take over police response to protesters in Ferguson. However, he said, the St. Louis County Police Department would remain in charge of the criminal investigation into Brown's death.
— Protesters gathered again Thursday by the police station and along West Florissant. However, protesters did not block the road. Police were absent from afternoon protests.
— Missouri Highway Patrol captain Ron Johnson marched with the protesters and apologized to those who had been teargassed.
Highway patrol captain Ron Johnson is leading protesters on a march through Ferguson. A corner turned? pic.twitter.com/ewytjhz2uP— Jon Swaine (@jonswaine) August 14, 2014
— Later in the evening, Captain Johnson spoke — and held a picture of Michael Brown as he did so.
— In other parts of the country, people rallied in support of Ferguson's protesters and against police brutality.
— On Friday, August 15, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson announced the name of the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown: Darren Wilson, who has been on the force for six years.
— In the same press conference, Jackson said that Michael Brown was the primary suspect in a strong-arm robbery of a convenience store that took place immediately before he was killed. He distributed packets to reporters that included security camera stills from the convenience store. CBS News later released video footage of the alleged robbery.
— Officials noted a negative mood change in Ferguson after the release of the information. Many protesters view it as an attempt to wrongly attack Michael Brown's character and justify the shooting.
— Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who's in charge of security in Ferguson, said he was not notified of the information prior to the news release. He added that he will have a "serious conversation" about better communications between police departments.
— In a second press conference later on Friday, Police Chief Jackson stated that "the initial contact with Brown was not related to the robbery," and clarified that Officer Wilson was not aware of the robbery at the time when he stopped Brown. Rather, Wilson stopped Brown because the teen was "walking in the middle of the street." Jackson later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Wilson saw cigars in Brown's hand and realized Brown could be the robber.
— When asked why he released information about the robbery, if it had nothing to do with Wilson's shooting of Brown, Jackson said he had done so "because you asked for it," an apparent reference to the sunshine-law requests that had sought information about Brown's death.
— Although tensions were elevated by the Ferguson Police's news releases earlier in the day, the night's early marches continued peacefully. Hundreds of people reportedly turned out, despite the rain.
— It's not clear why or how the situation escalated so quickly. Reports indicate the protests intensified after heavily armed police returned and fired tear gas in response to protesters throwing rocks and other objects.
— A few protesters began looting stores, including the store Michael Brown is accused of robbing. Reporters said a majority of protesters tried to stop the looters, and the looters were mostly drunk kids.
— The looting appeared to stop after other protesters intervened to guard stores, even though police never moved in.
— After the looting dissipated, some people began peacefully protesting again. The protests dwindled as the night progressed.
— Looting began again after most protesters left.
— Police were apparently ordered to stand down when some officers tried to stop the looting.
— Later on, St. Louis alderman Antonio French provided a firsthand account of what happened throughout the night. Based on French's description, only a minority of protesters engaged in looting, and a majority of protesters tried to stop them. Police didn't intervene because they realized it could make the situation even more violent, since the protests are rooted in distrust toward law enforcement.
— Michael Brown's family, St. Louis alderman Antonio French and Senator Clarie McCaskill, among others, condemned the previous night's looting and said it didn't represent a majority of protesters. "America, please don't hold small group of looters against hundreds & hundreds of peaceful protesters," McCaskill wrote on Twitter. "Rather hold small group accountable."
— Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who's in charge of security in Ferguson, said he didn't order the deployment of tear gas last night, but he did ask for the deployment of armored trucks to assist injured officers.
— Some residents hosted a cookout near the location of the Michael Brown shooting.
— Johnson hugged and shook hands with residents before an afternoon press conference.
— At the press conference, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced an order declaring a state of emergency and curfew in Ferguson. The curfew will run from midnight to 5 a.m. "This is not to silence the people of Ferguson or this region or others," Nixon said, "but to contain those who would endanger others."
— Johnson suggested security will resist a heavy-handed response while enforcing the curfew. "We won't enforce it with trucks, we won't enforce it with tear gas, we will communicate," he said.
— Nixon noted that the FBI's civil rights investigation into the Michael Brown shooting is "being beefed up" with investigators now on the ground in Ferguson.
— As the curfew approached, tensions remained high. Community leaders and the rain convinced most protesters to leave before midnight, but about 150 protesters remained after midnight. Some protesters built a barricade between police and the crowds to buy time, but tensions remained high.
— Police, after giving several warnings, fired smoke and tear gas at the protesters to enforce the curfew. Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Johnson said tear gas was used in response to reports of gunmen.
— Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Johnson said there were some gunshots fired throughout the night, but not by police. One gunshot hit a man who, according to the latest reports, was in critical condition.
— As for other violence, police said they were not aware of any looting.
— It was very difficult for journalists to report the evening's events, because they were confined to a small media zone during curfew hours that was out of sight of a majority of the action. Police threatened to arrest reporters who tried to leave the media zone.
— US Attorney General Eric Holder, under the request of Michael Brown's family, ordered another autopsy of Brown's body. "Due to the extraordinary circumstances involved in this case and at the request of the Brown family, Attorney General Holder has instructed Justice Department officials to arrange for an additional autopsy to be performed by a federal medical examiner," spokesperson Brian Fallon said. "This independent examination will take place as soon as possible. Even after it is complete, Justice Department officials still plan to take the state-performed autopsy into account in the course of their investigation."
— Later in the day, Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson gave a speech in which he apologized to Michael Brown's family and pledged solidarity with Ferguson. "We all ought to be thanking the Browns for Michael, because Michael's gonna make it better for our sons, so they can be better black men," he said.
— The night's protests began with what some reporters called a party atmosphere.
— After reports of gunshots, Molotov cocktails, and vandalism, police moved in to disperse protesters. Police used LRADs, which make piercing noises, and fired tear gas, some of which hit an eight-year-old boy.
— Police reported three injuries, none of which affected officers, and seven or eight arrests throughout the night.
— Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Johnson said security officials are planning additional steps to contain the violence in the future, but he would not elaborate what the steps will look like.
— Early in the morning of August 18, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered the state's National Guard to Ferguson in response to the previous night's violence. The National Guard troops were intended to protect police, who had claimed they were in danger from protesters — in the hopes that more protection might prevent police from panicking. "Tonight, a day of hope, prayers, and peaceful protests was marred by the violent criminal acts of an organized and growing number of individuals, many from outside the community and state, whose actions are putting the residents and businesses of Ferguson at risk," Nixon said in a statement.
— That afternoon, Nixon announced that the midnight curfew Ferguson residents had been under during the weekend would be lifted. However, law enforcement officials said that protesters would no longer be allowed to stand on or by West Florissant — only walking protesters, not "stationary protests," would be tolerated. Later reports said that protesters would be confined to an "authorized protest area" at one intersection,and West Florissant would be closed to traffic.
— Around 2:30 p.m. CDT, cops had already started arresting protesters outside the Ferguson McDonald's. The McDonald's closed before 5 p.m. CDT.
— The situation was largely peaceful throughout most of Monday night, with community leaders helping to keep the crowd calm. But that didn't prevent police officers from activating sound cannons and aiming rifles at protesters and journalists. It was so peaceful, in fact, that CNN's Jake Tapper sounded off on how ridiculous the police reaction looked in front of an overwhelmingly peaceful crowd. Later in the evening, however, Captain Ron Johnson appeared on CNN to defend the police's actions.
— Around 11 p.m. Ferguson time, the Washington Post's Wesley Lowery reported bangs near the QuikTrip convenience store that's become ground zero for the protests. Police rushed to the scene and deployed tear gas. Lowery also reported a fire in front of the store as armored trucks moved in.
— Some protesters reportedly started a fire in the street to block police, and prepared "homemade bombs" in case of a confrontation with police.
— Around 11:45 p.m. Ferguson time, police ordered protesters to disperse. People who didn't cooperate were arrested. Shortly after, journalists were also asked to move to a designated area at the police's command center. One journalist from VICE had his media credential ripped off by a police officer, who said, "This doesn't mean shit."
Reporter Ryan Devereaux of First Look was shot with rubber bullets and bean bags by police, and spent Monday night in jail. (He was released Tuesday morning.)
— As the night went on, the confrontation moved to the residential area of Canfield, where Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. What happened in Canfield is disputed — and is the basis for a deeper dispute among journalists and local leaders about whether the police response on Monday was a step forward for Ferguson, or the worst aggression yet.
Police, along with local leaders like Antonio French and local journalists, say that local "Canfield kids" were "fighters," not protesters — that they were attacking police and egged on by outsiders from Chicago and other areas.
Journalists who were in the residential area, including Elon James, however, were part of a crowd of eight people who were fired on repeatedly with tear gas. James says that the group was teargassed simply for turning a corner onto the street.
— In all, 78 people were arrested in Ferguson on Monday night, 18 of whom were from outside Missouri. Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol said that some of those arrested were from as far away as New York and California. Police confiscated two guns and one Molotov cocktail. Two people were shot, and four officers were reportedly injured by rocks thrown by protesters.
— On the evening of August 19, the mood seemed more like a demonstration than a protest — especially as protesters were focusing on county prosecutor Bob McCulloch and calling for him to be removed from Michael Brown's case. Police retained the "organized protest area" policy, but weren't as strict in forcing protesters to keep moving, and showed more patience in dealing with protesters for most of the evening — it was the first night without the use of tear gas since the day Michael Brown was killed. More importantly, community leaders were active in leading protests, and helped urge protesters to leave the area after midnight Central time.
— Later in the evening, when a protester threw a water bottle at police, officers called in the armored trucks.
Water bottle thrown. Chaos ensues. Not many protesters (more media than them). The few protesters left are just adamant and angry. #Ferguson— Ray Downs (@RayDowns) August 20, 2014
Riot police went after a few ppl hard after getting hit with water. Wasted no time Brought the armored trucks in. #Ferguson— Ray Downs (@RayDowns) August 20, 2014
— The de facto leaders of the protesters, for their part, attempted to defuse the situation. They stood in a line between demonstrators and the police.
— Police kept pushing. They aimed guns at protesters and media. They shot rubber bullets. They ordered people to go home. They made multiple arrests as protesters failed to disperse. Police told the media to leave. A photographer and other media personnel were arrested.
— The protests on August 20 were the second night in a row that police didn't deploy any tear gas, perhaps the biggest sign yet that tensions are easing — at least for now — in the small town.
— In response, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered the National Guard to begin pulling out of Ferguson.
— The protests seem to have calmed for the time being. Although some crowds still take to the streets on occasion, it's usually in relative peace and without heavy police interference.
— There's a history of police violence against young black men, and the shooting takes place at a time when this perennial topic was already being widely discussed. New Yorker Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, was killed in July after police put him in a chokehold by police. The incident, which was caught on video, caused an outcry against the New York Police Department — especially after Garner's death was officially ruled a homicide. Mayor Bill de Blasio eventually agreed to a review of the department's training procedures.
— The frustration and anger in Ferguson likely goes beyond the killing of Brown. Ferguson is like many cities in America: police disproportionately stop and arrest black residents. While 67 percent of Ferguson is black, 86 percent of all traffic stops and 92 percent of all arrests are of black residents, according to state report on racial profiling obtained by Buzzfeed. But black residents of Ferguson who are stopped by police are less likely to be carrying contraband than white residents are.
— The city's government is predominately white as well: there is one black person on the Ferguson city council and one Latino on the school board. Just three out of the city's 53 commissioned police officers are black.
— There's also a lot of anger around how the media portrays young men who are killed. Over the weekend, the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, which was trending on Twitter on Sunday night, captured the divide between how young black men see themselves and how the media sees them.
— Advocates around the country who have been outraged by the shooting organized National Moments of Silence on August 14 in several cities to protest police brutality.
— The St. Louis County Police Department is conducting a criminal investigation to see if Darren Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown. Their findings will be used by St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who is responsible for filing charges against Wilson. On August 20, a grand jury convened to decide whether to charge Wilson in Brown's death.
— Protesters and local leaders have expressed serious concerns about whether county prosecutor McCulloch will be willing to prosecute Wilson effectively. In the past, McCulloch has failed to press charges in some similar cases, and has broken trial rules in others. There's a rising call for McCulloch to recuse himself from the case, or for Governor Jay Nixon to remove McCulloch from the case. Nixon has said he won't remove McCulloch, but allowed McCulloch to recuse himself. McCulloch, in response, dared Nixon to "make a decision."
— St. Louis County Police Chief Belmar has spoken favorably of the Ferguson police, telling reporters on August 10, "I would not think anybody would [ask for an investigation] if they had anything to hide." Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson is a former St. Louis County police officer, which also raises concerns about the investigation's objectivity. Jackson told reporters on August 13th that he had asked the St. Louis County police to keep him "out of the loop."
— Investigators have received photos from eyewitness Piaget Crenshaw, as well as a video that was recorded after the shooting.
— The Ferguson Police Department received a grant this year to purchase several dashboard cameras for police vehicles and two to three body cameras for officers, the Ferguson police chief told reporters Wednesday, but doesn't have the money to install them yet — so no known video of the shooting exists.
— Eyewitness Dorian Johnson, Brown's friend who was also stopped by the officer, testified to police on August 13, after several days during which he said he was not contacted to testify.
— On August 11, the FBI announced that it was also launching its own civil-rights investigation of Brown's death. The St. Louis NAACP had called on the FBI to take up the investigation to make sure it would be sufficiently independent. Ferguson police chief Jackson told the AP that the FBI would be taking over the St. Louis County investigation of the shooting. However, the FBI says that they're reviewing the incident for possible civil rights violations, not duplicating the criminal investigation.
— Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, has been put on paid administrative leave while the investigation is conducted. Wilson was not identified until six days after the shooting. Police originally planned to release his name on the morning of August 12, but changed their minds out of concern for his safety.
— On August 12, the St. Louis County prosecutor's office announced that they would not be releasing the results of the autopsy of Michael Brown's body. However, on August 18th, someone with the county medical examiner's office leaked some of the autopsy's findings to the Washington Post. The autopsy found that Brown was shot six to eight times in the head and chest, and that he had marijuana in his system at the time of his death.
— Brown's body was released to his family on August 13, and the family arranged for an independent autopsy. Results of that autopsy were reported by the New York Times on August 17. The independent autopsy showed at least six shots in the head and right arm, including one shot on the top of the head — indicating that Brown's head was down when at least one shot was fired.
— Attorney General Eric Holder announced on August 17 that the federal government would be conducting its own autopsy on Brown's body for its investigation.
— Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson told reporters on Wednesday, August 13, that the 911 tapes from witnesses to Brown's shooting would be released to the public but did not say when that would happen.
— On Wednesday, August 13, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson told reporters that the police department has been working with the community relations division of the Department of Justice to improve race and community relations. "That's a top priority," he said.
— On Thursday, August 14, the Department of Justice is coordinating a meeting between Chief Jackson and community leaders, including the head of the local NAACP.
In the wake of Michael Brown's killing, there's been a rush to figure out how often something like this happens in America. The problem, as several writers have found in the last few weeks, is that no one collects data that answers exactly that question. There is no national database that police departments are required to submit a record to when they complete an investigation after a police officer shoots a civilian.
The FBI does collect some data, however. Many have reported that the FBI's records say that there were 426 "felons killed by police" in 2012. Now, Vox has obtained FBI records that go beyond the raw number of police-involved homicides and reveal details about the victims and the circumstances surrounding their deaths. The data offers an important look at what the FBI knows about people killed by police in America.
The FBI data has tremendous limitations. It represents the minimum number of people who were killed by police in 2012, and there's no way to know how many cases are left out. But while it tells us just a little about how many people are killed by police, it tells us more about who those people are, and what police say about why they were killed. Furthermore, it hints at a theme that's woven through the events of the last two weeks in Ferguson, Missouri: that the experience of dealing with police in America is different for whites and nonwhites.
The FBI collects records from local and state law enforcement on a monthly basis as part of their Uniform Crime Reporting system, which is what they use to produce official reports of crime rates in the US. (Participation is voluntary, but more than 18,000 agencies participate.) Those records tell the FBI how many crimes were committed and what type, but it doesn't say much about the characteristics of the victim, offender, or crime.
The Uniform Crime Report only categorizes an officer-involved homicide differently from a normal homicide if the police officer killed a felon "in the line of duty." The FBI calls this a type of "justifiable homicide." (This isn't the same definition that states or criminal courts use — the standard that Darren Wilson will be held to for killing Michael Brown, for example, is more subjective and complicated.) This data doesn't encompass every time an officer kills someone, and it doesn't include any information beyond a simple count of the number of justifiable homicides each year.
But agencies can also submit an extra, optional report to the FBI when they turn in the monthly crime data, called the Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR). That report asks for demographic information about both the victims of homicides and the people who committed them. It also asks agencies to select from a list of "circumstances" for the homicide — including "felon killed by an officer." That's the same definition as "justifiable homicide" in the full crime report. But the SHR allows the FBI to look at the other data — including what the victim was doing and how he was killed — in cases where a police department reports killing a felon.
The SHR isn't as good a dataset as the broader Uniform Crime Report, which more agencies participate in, or other federal crime surveys. In the words of criminologist David Klinger, it "undercounts by some unknown degree the number of people killed by the cops in the United States." But Klinger and other experts feel it's appropriate to regard it as a "minimum."
The FBI doesn't publish the full Supplementary Homicide Report records, but it provided Vox with data that included every case of a "felon killed by a police officer" in 2012.
The dataset shows 426 homicide victims — in line with the 400 justifiable homicides per year stat that USA Today and other sources have reported. However, it also includes the number of officers who were involved in homicides of felons: 631 officers. The number of officers is higher than the number of homicide victims because 121 victims, or 28.4 percent of all 2012 victims, were shot by multiple officers when they died. About two-thirds were a single victim shot by a single officer; in 1 percent of cases, a single officer shot multiple victims. (According to the 2012 data, only one of the 426 justifiable homicides was not a shooting; it's listed as "death by physical weapons.")
The SHR data does not indicate whether victims were armed when they were killed by police. But the ways the homicides are classified can offer clues as to how urgent or dangerous a situation was when the shooting occurred.
There are six different subcategories of "felon killed by an officer." Three are cases where police said the victim was attacking someone when he was killed. These reports may or may not be accurate, and can boil down to an officer's word. (Based on Wilson's account of the killing of Brown, for example, the Ferguson Police Department could submit his death to the FBI as a "felon killed by an officer, attacking the officer.") But they represent the cases in which the officers who killed someone claimed that there was an urgent safety need for them to do so.
The other three are cases where police say the victim "attempted flight" from police, "was killed in the commission of a crime," or "resisted arrest." Those are all "justifiable" homicides, according to the FBI's definition. But they're less clear in indicating whether the officer's actions were necessary.
Other variables recorded by the FBI can also provide clues about how dangerous the victim really was — or at least whether police approached him as dangerous before killing him. According to criminologist Klinger, "when a shotgun or rifle is" the homicide weapon, it's more likely that there was "an indication of violence prior to the police entry into the situation" than when the victim is killed with a standard police-issue handgun. That's because when police are called to deal with someone who's already violent, in what they call a "hot call" or a SWAT raid, they bring bigger weapons. Similarly, if multiple officers shot the victim, it's more likely to be because multiple officers had been called to deal with a dangerous situation.
The SHR lists 118 victims of "justifiable homicide" who were killed while fleeing, committing a felony, or resisting arrest — not because they were attacking anyone. And 102 of those weren't killed with a rifle or a shotgun, but with a handgun. In these 102 cases, the necessity of the officers' use of force is the most ambiguous. And in these 102 cases, the victims are more likely than in any other justifiable homicide categories to be black.
The justifiable homicide victims of 2012 were overwhelmingly male — the FBI's records included 11 women and 415 men. They were also, as are most people that interact with the criminal justice system, disproportionately black. Black Americans make up 13 percent of the US population, but the FBI's data shows that 32 percent of the felons killed by officers in 2012 where black. Fifty-two percent were white, and 12 percent were Hispanic.
The men killed by police in "justifiable homicides" in 2012 were relatively young, with a median age of 32. But the age breakdown of victims varies by race:
Younger victims of justifiable homicide are much more diverse than their older peers. Well into middle age, there are some white victims, but very few nonwhite ones past the age of 35 or so (and black deaths peak at age 20).
John Roman of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, says these numbers indicate that many white justifiable-homicide victims are killed by police who are intervening in a domestic-violence dispute. Broader research on all types of homicide, he says, shows that victim and offender ages fall into a few distinct groups: "You see one peak with little kids with infanticide, one peak with teenagers shooting each other, and then you see another big blip where the age of the victim and the offender are the same and they could be in their 30s, 40s or 50s. And that's mainly domestic violence. So when you see whites being shot by police officers, who are older than their early 20s, that's almost certainly domestic violence."
The concentration of death among young black and Hispanic men, meanwhile, is in part a demonstration that those are the people most likely to encounter police officers. They're the ones most likely to be arrested, and most likely to be living in the neighborhoods where police most frequently patrol.
It's important not to put too much stock in the SHR data. The fact that there is some publicly available data on the subject is extremely important, but, as criminologist Klinger says, it still does not tell us "how many times police officers put bullets in citizens' bodies."
One reason that the FBI's data is incomplete, of course, is that not all killings by police are "justifiable" — even under the FBI's loose definition, which includes any death of someone who'd committed a felony. That said, experts believe that local police departments tend to write up reports for justifiable homicides immediately after the incident, and submit those every month — they don't wait for a formal officer-involved shooting investigation to determine whether the victim was really committing a felony or not. In the meantime, the FBI trusts the agency when it says that the homicide victim was a felon. So there may be homicides in the FBI's data for justifiable homicides that turned out not to be.
The most important reason the FBI's data doesn't tell the whole story, though, is that the SHR isn't something agencies are required to submit. In fact, according to the Urban Institute's Roman, the FBI doesn't accept SHR data from the entire state of Florida, simply because the FBI doesn't like the way Florida reports it. (This might explain the biggest discrepancy between the FBI data obtained by Vox and the most closely related federal database, which tracks arrest-related homicides; that database shows that 20 percent of victims are Hispanic, as opposed to the FBI's 12 percent.) This is also why we're not presenting a geographical breakdown of the FBI's data: it would be completely skewed by which agencies are choosing to report, and which are not.
Patrick Ball, the executive director of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, thinks that there are some circumstances in which officer-involved shooting might be particularly likely to be omitted — even by agencies that do report their data. The most common scenario, he thinks, is when someone is injured after being shot by a police officer, and then dies later — but the agency doesn't bother to update its data. Deaths are also likely to go unreported if they're of unauthorized immigrants, he says, or in other cases in which an officer can simply not report a death to superiors. Lastly, he says, there are simple problems in data processing — a death might be left out of internal statistics, or kept in internal statistics but left out of what the department tells the FBI. The last scenario is actually extremely common. According to Klinger, the reason that criminologists know that the FBI's data is undercounted is because it doesn't match the data that police departments themselves keep.
These problems are also more likely to affect particular sorts of agencies, says Ball. He points out that rural agencies, which are more likely to commit homicides of whites, are less likely to be sophisticated users of the FBI's data system than urban ones, which are more likely to kill blacks. That could go either way. A rural agency might be less likely to report its homicides, resulting in white victims being undercounted in the FBI's data. Alternatively, an urban agency could be better at gaming the system, so that its more-nonwhite victims don't show up in the data.
Many of these problems aren't limited to this particular dataset — they're reasons to be skeptical of crime stats in general. But they're important context for understanding what the FBI data can and can't tell us.
The fundamental question about the FBI's data is: is it representative of all police homicides, even if it isn't exhaustive? Or are the homicides that aren't reported statistically different from the ones that are?
Roman of the Urban Institute, who's worked with this report in the past, is confident that "the limitations of the data are more administrative and clerical than they are biased." In other words, it's not that agencies are deliberately deciding not to report some cases — it's just that some agencies happen to participate in the optional report, and others don't. That means that the FBI's data ought to be at least somewhat representative.
But Ball believes that's impossible: "There's a reason some of them don't get reported," whether it's because of the agency or the particular details of the case. So while he can't lay out the exact differences between unreported officer-involved homicides and the ones reported to the FBI, he's confident that some difference exists.
At the end of the day, it's still true that we don't know how many people are killed by police in America. We know some things about some people who are killed by police. The facts we do know are enough to make it clear that more information is needed — and enough to suggest that the racial disparities in the American criminal justice system extend to the barrel of an officer's gun.
We may never really know what happened in the three minutes between when Michael Brown was stopped for jaywalking and when he was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson.
But we do know what happened on Tuesday during the 23 seconds between when St. Louis police arrived and when 25-year-old Kajieme Powell was shot and killed on Riverview Blvd. We know because police released the video. Powell walks around the sidewalk and a small grass embankment. He ignores police warnings to drop his knife. He advances on police at a normal speed, his arms swinging at his sides. And he is shot nine times, including while on the ground.
The footage is horrifying to watch, in part for the speed with which it turns from comic to tragic. It begins with a man chuckling over Powell's erratic — but seemingly harmless — behavior. Seconds later, Powell is dead.
But even with clear video of the entire encounter, there is little agreement as to what happened.
It is notable that the St. Louis police released the video. They did so in the interests of transparency, and because it was, in the words of a police union representative, "exculpatory." And in some ways it is. Powell is acting erratically. He does ignore police warnings to stop and drop his knife. He does advance on them. He does yell, "shoot me!"
But many who have seen the video think it is anything but exculpatory. It raises questions about aspects of the story police told in the immediate aftermath of the shooting — Powell does not appear to charge the police with his knife held high, and he is shot when he is farther away than two or three feet, for instance.
It's more than just that, though. The events on the video happen quickly, but they also happen slowly. Powell does not move like a man who poses a threat. There is no evidence that anyone felt threatened before the police arrived. Even when he advances on police, he walks, rather than runs. He swings his arms normally, rather than entering into a fighting stance.
Powell looks sick more than he looks dangerous. But the police draw their weapons as soon as they exit their car. They begin yelling at him to stop. And when they begin shooting, they shoot to kill — even continuing to shoot when Powell is motionless on the ground. There is no warning shot, even. It does not seem like it should be so easy to take a life.
The police arrive and instantly escalate the situation. They don't seem to know how to stop Powell, save for using deadly force. But all Powell had was a steak knife. If the police had been in their car, with the windows rolled up, he could have done little to hurt them. It is impossible not to wonder what would have happened if the police didn't have deadly force on their hips, if all they had were tasers or batons. It is impossible not to wonder what would have happened if the police had simply never shown up at all.
It is easy to criticize. It is easy to watch a cell phone video and think of all the ways it could have gone differently. It is easy to forget that the police saw a mentally unbalanced man with a knife advancing on them. It is easy to forget that 20 seconds only takes 20 seconds. It is easy to forget that police get scared. It is easy not to ask yourself what you might have done if you had a gun and a man came at you with a knife.
But there is still something wrong with that video. There is something wrong that the video seems obviously exculpatory to the police and obviously damning to so many who watch it. The dispute over the facts in the Michael Brown case offers the hope that there is a right answer — that Wilson either did clearly the right thing or clearly the wrong thing. The video of the Powell case delivers a harder reality: what the police believe to be the right thing and what the people they serve believe to be the right thing may be very different.
This man needed help. He had a knife, but he also, clearly, had an illness. After watching the video, Vox's Amanda Taub said, "I keep thinking about the times when I have called 911 because I have encountered a mentally ill person in public who seems unsafe. I don't know how I would live with it if this had been the result." There has to have been a way that police could have protected Kajieme Powell rather than killed him.
Video released by the St. Louis Police of the August 19 shooting of 25-year-old Kajieme Powell, just miles away from the protests in Ferguson, raises questions about whether events transpired as police initially claimed.
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson had told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Powell "pulled out a knife and came at the officers, gripping and holding it high," yelling "Shoot me now, kill me now." Police said he was shot when he was "two or three feet" away from the officers.
The newly released video begins before police arrive on the scene. A bystander has followed Powell after he took energy drinks and muffins from a market without paying for them, and can be heard chuckling over Powell's erratic behavior. Powell is seen slowly pacing around the scene of the eventual shooting before police arrive. When the officers enter and draw their guns, Powell ignores warnings to put down his knife, and advances on them. He then repeatedly yells, "Shoot me!"
But Powell does not appear to be holding a knife high, and he looks to be walking normally — and to be further than two or three feet from the officers — when they open fire, killing him.
The video was released to the media alongside 911 calls and surveillance camera footage. "Dotson said all of these images were made public Wednesday because he promised a crowd that gathered at the shooting scene transparency and explanations, with many asking why officers didn't use a taser," reported KMOV-TV.
A police union spokesperson told St. Louis Public Radio the footage is "exculpatory," or favorable to the officers' side of the story.
But the video's release quickly triggered angry responses on social media, with many asking whether the shooting was necessary. Ferguson protesters and activists derided what they called a "shoot first" attitude among police.
Prior to the video's release, tensions were already high in Ferguson after the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown. That shooting blew open long-simmering racial tensions and distrust between police and the public in the small St. Louis suburb. The video, as the social media reaction suggests, is widening that distrust.
This morning, NPR reporter Shereen Marisol tweeted this photograph of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Clayton, Missouri, where a grand jury has just begun to hear evidence about the shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson:
This picture of police tape and armed officers blocking the courthouse is perhaps one of the most chilling images to come out of the Ferguson protests. The message to the people outside could not be clearer: "You are not welcome here. This place is not for you. It is for us." And messages matter, especially at times like this.
The Fourteenth Amendment promises that no American government, state or federal, will "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." For twelve straight days now, people have taken to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, to tell their government that they feel that promise is not being kept, that the protection is not equal. That there are wrongful judgments being made about what kinds of people deserve the protection of our laws, and what kinds of people are an enemy to be protected against.
And in response, many of them have been tear gassed and menaced with snarling dogs. Threatened with rifles. Arrested.
And now those people find that the same police whose actions they are protesting have literally — physically — blocked their access to the courts. It's true that today's grand jury proceedings, like all grand jury proceedings, are secret. The people outside the courthouse could not attend them, even if the police were not blocking the doors. But the courthouse is not just for the grand jury, it is a place where people can go to file new cases, demand information about old ones, and observe other trials that are taking place.
You're not supposed to have to beg the police to let you pass so that you can file a complaint that those same police violated your rights. Our justice system is supposed to be public to those who want to use it, those who want to observe it, and those who want to demand that it step up its game.
No one would argue that people should be allowed to protest through the halls of justice. But there's something very wrong with the idea that the courthouse needs to be under police lockdown. Courtrooms are naturally contentious places, and trials often inspire public fervor, but the courts usually find a way to carry on their work without resorting to these kinds of measures. (I worked at the federal courthouse in Manhattan during a terrorism trial, for instance, and while there was security, there was no police line. People could come and go.)
I believe in the power of the justice system, despite its imperfections. It is easy to take courts for granted, but it is actually extraordinary that there is a room where ordinary people can stand up and demand that the full power of the state be brought to bear to protect their rights, even if they are nobody special, and even if that protection will inconvenience the powerful. That is what the protesters in Ferguson are asking for: a system that responds equally to the needs of Michael Browns and Darren Wilsons.
And this morning that demand was met with the wrong response: Police line. Do not cross.
The situation in Ferguson is very tense. But it seemed particularly tense for one police officer on Tuesday night, who aimed his rifle at protesters while shouting obscenities and death threats before being told to calm down by what appear to be fellow officers:
If a non-officer did this, it would be a crime.
This one officer's actions don't represent the entire police presence in Ferguson. As the Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel points out, some cops are doing a good job working with media and protesters to try to de-escalate the situation.
But consistently in Ferguson, the situation needlessly escalates after police officers overreact — even during circumstances as silly as a protester throwing a water bottle. This police officer is a clear example of that overreaction.
Update: KMOV's Laura Hettiger reports that the officer was "relieved of duty and suspended indefinitely."
The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, have captivated the nation in the past week and a half. Much of that, some experts argue, is because the small town's problems represent racial tensions that are rippling through the nation as a whole.
Jeff Smith is a professor of politics, advocacy, and urban policy at the New School and former Missouri State Senator from St. Louis. He recently wrote a New York Times op-ed on the roots of the unrest in Ferguson. As he notes, the problems in Ferguson — racial tensions resulting from conflicts between the black community and the established white power base — are emerging all over the country as black people move out of the cities and into the suburbs. I talked to Smith on Monday about his op-ed and the political and demographic history of the St. Louis area.
German Lopez: What do you make of the situation in Ferguson and the lead-up to it?
Jeff Smith: The demographics of north St. Louis County have changed dramatically over the last two decades or so. A select few black families started to move out to north counties in the 1950s and 1960s, but then the wave began to really pick up in the last two decades. Since 1990, Ferguson has gone from being about three-quarters white suburb to being a town that's almost 70 percent black and less than 30 percent white. That's a dramatic change in 20 years.
You definitely have a serious institutional lag between the composition of the power structure in the town and the actual population.
GL: One of the issues you've written about is how police are encouraged to ticket as many people as possible since it funds local budgets. Due to racial disparities, that means they end up ticketing a lot of black residents.
JS: Yeah. These municipalities are not well-funded, they don't have big tax bases, and a lot of the shopping centers, movie theaters, and big stores have gone out of businesses. Consequently, they're strapped for cash.
As a result, places like Ferguson get almost a quarter of their municipal budget from traffic-related fines. Other places have even higher percentages.
When you have that situation and layer on the racial inequities in the police force, it's a recipe for disaster. A lot of African Americans feel hassled all the time, because there's pressure on the cops to make enough stops to meet budgetary needs, and there's a cross-racial disconnect and misunderstanding between the police and public.
GL: Why do you think the demographic changes haven't been reflected in the local government?
JS: There are myriad reasons for that, as some people are starting to catch on to.
Number one, there's really a situation where the eligible electorate among black people is lower, because fewer of them are 18 or older.
Number two, there's lower socioeconomic status among black people in Ferguson. When there's lower education levels and socioeconomic status, there's a lower likelihood of turnout.
Number three, layered on that, there's municipal elections in the spring. Presidential elections in November have the heaviest turnout among low-income people. I'm not going to say it's by design, but it's probably not an accident that in St. Louis County municipal elections are held in March and April, when people in lower socioeconomic classes are least likely to turn out.
Finally, there's a marginalization from economic power in local government. There's waste management contracts, sewer contracts, all the types of municipal public works contracts that traditionally white people in charge have awarded to their allies. That strengthens the firms and labor unions that then, in a sort of cycle, continue strengthening the white power structure and make it harder for African Americans to penetrate the system — this mutually reinforcing connection. After all, if black people have less disposable income, they're probably not going to be able to fund a really effective campaign.
So there are all these factors, and then there's a really struggling education system. Many of the adults in Ferguson today went to city schools, which were unaccredited for many years. A lot of the north county district schools are also unaccredited or bordering on losing their state accreditation. When there's that type of education system, there's a ton of dropouts. In some of these education systems, half the kids drop out. When lots of young males drop out of high school and have no municipal job opportunities, they're highly unlikely to be engaged, and they don't have as much investment in their communities.
GL: One of the questions I've gotten a lot in the past week is why these racial disparities exist in local government. It seems like you're saying it's really hard for this relatively new population to break in.
JS: It's definitely a big part of it. There's been a serious racial disparity in voting turnout. Ferguson's white residents have turned out much more than black residents.
It's very hard, then, to break into these cliques. And these cliques have run a lot of north county municipalities for a long time.
GL: What do you think the solution to this kind of problem is?
JS: There's not just one solution.
On the cultural level, there has to be a real frank discussion as a region across racial lines. White people need to understand the roots of this rage. A lot of white people reply to articles like mine with comments like, "The Civil Rights Movement made things equal 50 years ago. What do these people have to be angry about?" Part of this problem is a lot of white people in St. Louis don't have exposure to black people on a day-to-day basis. So there needs to be a real effort toward interracial understanding.
On an economic level, the big companies, institutions, and hospitals in the area need to make a real, concerted effort to have job fairs in north St. Louis County. Anytime you have situation in which as much as 50 percent of young black males are unemployed and don't have a stake in their community, it's hard to convince them to not act out. They're just not part of the economic fabric of the neighborhood.
Taking that a step further back, the situation would benefit from a good education system. That's not the case right now in north St. Louis. It's not the case where a lot of current Ferguson residents grew up.
On the political level, there needs to be some regional consolidation that would combine some of these local governments. It would help reduce duplicative spending on expensive public safety programs. For example, every one of these small towns doesn't need a firetruck. If that duplication could be reduced, it would be possible to shore up the finances of consolidated towns so they're not overly relying on traffic stops to generate revenue and meet their budget needs. Along with this, there also needs to be a diversification of the public safety workforce in these towns.
GL: Right now, the focus is obviously on Ferguson. But do you think this is a problem that's happening all over the country?
JS: There are some cliquey characteristics that are unique to St. Louis, but this is enough of a universal story that it partially explains why the nation is so riveted by what's happening in Ferguson.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It was a relatively peaceful Tuesday night in Ferguson, Missouri, even as protests over the shooting of Michael Brown continued into their second week. Protesters engaged in peaceful chanting and displays, including some fairly playful demonstrations on a train. Police mostly watched on in silence.
But that all changed when a protester threw a water bottle at police, and officers called in the armored trucks.
Water bottle thrown. Chaos ensues. Not many protesters (more media than them). The few protesters left are just adamant and angry. #Ferguson— Ray Downs (@RayDowns) August 20, 2014
Riot police went after a few ppl hard after getting hit with water. Wasted no time Brought the armored trucks in. #Ferguson— Ray Downs (@RayDowns) August 20, 2014
The de facto leaders of the protesters, for their part, attempted to defuse the situation. They stood in a line between demonstrators and the police.
Police kept pushing. They aimed guns at protesters and media. They shot rubber bullets. They ordered people to go home. They made multiple arrests as protesters failed to disperse. Police told the media to leave. A photographer and other media personnel were arrested.
The good news is tear gas wasn't deployed, making it the first night without chemical weapons on the ground since the protests began. But, by several accounts, that was despite police action, not because of it. It seems, in fact, protesters did more to tame the situation through some self-policing of agitators.
Earlier in the night, reporters and activists were praising both sides for their restraint. Police, for instance, didn't line up in a confrontational military-like formation as they did in previous nights. Protesters who labeled themselves "peacekeepers" actively worked to prevent any agitation of the crowd, allowing people to march without confrontations with police.
All it took to break a wholly peaceful night was one water bottle.
Whoever threw that water bottle was in the wrong. With tensions high in Ferguson, everyone familiar with the situation knows that just one water bottle can lead to chaos. The Los Angeles Times's Matt Pearce noted as much earlier in the night.
There's been a couple moments tonight where a thrown water bottle could have escalated things.— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) August 20, 2014
Some of that shows just how tense the situation is in Ferguson. After nights of violent outbreaks and tear gas, both sides are, with reason, on high alert.
But the fact a single water bottle can cause law enforcement to escalate the situation also speaks to what's been a persistent criticism of the police in Ferguson: that police are often turning themselves into the problem, not the solution.
Slate's Jamelle Bouie noted the trend on Monday night, when tensions again flared up as police, standing in an intimidating military formation, overreacted to a couple people throwing objects.
This has been the consistent pattern. Unilateral police escalation prompts minor response from more volatile elements, justifying crackdown.— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) August 19, 2014
This hasn't been the case every night. A small group of protesters, who are widely condemned by community leaders in Ferguson, have some nights engaged in violent behavior, including gunfire, throwing Molotov cocktails, and looting. But at least in the protest area, this wasn't the case for most of the night on Monday or Tuesday. The demonstrators in the protest area were overwhelmingly peaceful for both nights, yet police stood armed and ready.
On Monday, the scene was so ridiculous it sent CNN's Jake Tapper into an on-air rant. "So if people wonder why the people of Ferguson, Missouri are so upset, this is part of the reason," he said. "What is this? This doesn't make any sense."
That, of course, didn't stop police from charging in when one little thing went wrong.
These are police officers with body armor, semi-automatic rifles, and chemical weapons, backed by mine-resistant trucks. What harm can a water bottle really do?
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has the power to unilaterally suspend a program that sends surplus military equipment to local police and take back the gear, a Pentagon official told The Hill.
The 1033 program is getting more attention in recent weeks due to the police's heavy-handed tactics in Ferguson, Missouri, where demonstrators are protesting the police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. In the past couple of weeks, federal officials, including President Barack Obama and US Attorney General Eric Holder, have criticized the militarization of police.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby stated, however, that Hagel has not yet initiated a formal review of the program, and the review is necessary to ultimately dismantle the scheme. But Hagel did ask for more information.
"The secretary has been mindful of the public debate and discussion about this issue and asked his staff this morning for some additional information about the program," Kirby told the Hill. "He has been given an information paper that provides some more detail to it, and he's consuming that now."
Barring action from the Pentagon, the 1033 program could be dismantled by Congress. And local governments could stop requesting the equipment altogether.
The end of the Pentagon's 1033 program would present a major step toward demilitarizing local police, but it wouldn't remove all of the military gear and technology local departments have built up over the years. The Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security, for instance, also supply police with military-grade equipment.
To learn more about the 1033 program and situation in Ferguson, read the full explainer on the militarization of US police, the full explainer on the Michael Brown shooting, and watch the two-minute video below:
Even if you're not in Ferguson right now, you can watch the protests unfold from a number of live feeds.
So far, the "I am Mike Brown Live" feed from Argus Radio has the clearest picture:
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced Tuesday evening that he won't ask St. Louis County Attorney Robert McCulloch to step down from the prosecution of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
Ferguson, Missouri has been rocked by protests since Wilson shot Brown on the afternoon of August 9. A key demand of the demonstrators is that Wilson be brought to justice. But on top of that, in recent days there have been increasing concerns about McCulloch's impartiality and willingness to vigorously pursue the case — leading to widespread calls for his removal.
Among other things, critics point out that McCulloch decided not to bring charges in a previous case in which police officers killed two unarmed black men,
St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley announced on August 15 that he would lead an effort to have McCulloch removed, and more than 51,000 people have now signed an online petition demanding that McCulloch recuse himself and his office from the case.
In an interview with Vox, former prosecutor Alex Little criticized McCulloch's actions thus far, saying that his decision to take the case to a grand jury at this stage could be a "delaying tactic." He also accused McCulloch of having "abdicated his role as an advocate for justice."
But McCulloch appears to have retained the support of Governor Nixon, who released the following statement on the evening of August 19:
"From the outset, I have been clear about the need to have a vigorous prosecution of this case, and that includes minimizing and potential legal uncertainty. I am not asking St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough [sic] to recuse himself from this case. There is a well-established process by which a prosecutor can recuse themselves from a pending investigation, and a special prosecutor be appointed. Departing from this established process could unnecessarily inject legal uncertainty into this matter and potentially jeopardize the prosecution."
It is worth noting that even if McCulloch's office retains control of the case, that does not mean that McCulloch himself will be personally involved in the grand jury presentation — or in any eventual trial.
As the County Prosecutor, McCulloch can be expected to have input into major decisions about the direction of the case, but it is likely that assistant attorneys will be the ones to handle the day to day matters relating to the grand jury and prosecution. Indeed, McCulloch's spokesman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the grand jury proceedings starting on August 20 will be handled "by the attorney regularly assigned to the grand jury. It will not be handled by Mr. McCulloch."
Update: Later the night of the 19th, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster also released a statement supporting McCulloch:
"During a state of emergency, the Governor has the power to suspend any officer or agency of state or local government. It should be noted that Bob McCulloch has been elected by the people of St. Louis County seven times in a row, and he is one of the most experienced prosecutors in our state. It is my understanding he has placed the matter in the hands of two highly experienced prosecutors, one of whom is African-American. I trust in their ability to diligently and fairly present the evidence in this case."
Correction: this article initially referred to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as the St. Louis County Dispatch. That error has been corrected.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation reports that at least 13 journalists have been arrested in Ferguson, Missouri since August 13 amid the protests. Here's the full list:
August 19, 2014
Lukas Hermsmeier of Bild
Ryan Devereaux of the Intercept
August 18, 2014
Ansgar Graw of Die Welt
Frank Hermann of Der Standard
Scott Olson of Getty Images
Kerry Picket of Breitbart News
August 17, 2014
Rob Crilly of The Telegraph
Matthew Giles, journalism student at New York University
Robert Klemko of Sports Illustrated
Neil Munshi of the Financial Times
August 13, 2014
Antonio French, St. Louis alderman and citizen journalist
Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post
Ryan J. Reilly of The Huffington Post
For more on journalist arrests in Ferguson, see Max Fisher's previous story, which noted: "It is becoming clear that police in Ferguson are targeting journalists, using intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and physical force."
The list above only covers journalists. According to arrest data obtained from NBC News, some 78 people in total were arrested on Monday, August 18.
Those arrest records showed that just 18 of those people were from outside Missouri — contradicting earlier statements from authorities that largely blamed out-of-state protesters for causing problems.
That was confirmed again by data released this evening from the St. Louis County police department, who reported that they had arrested 52 people in Ferguson over the same time period. (Presumably this is just a subset of all arrests in Ferguson, as there are multiple police departments there.)
Of those, 14 arrestees were from out of state — and four of those were from neighboring Illinois. Here's a more precise breakdown:
Bel-Ridge, MO (1)
City of St. Louis, MO (15)
Creve Coeur, MO (1)
Ferguson, MO (4)
Flordell Hills, MO (1)
Florissant, MO (7)
Hazelwood, MO (1)
Jennings, MO (2)
Unincorporated St. Louis County (6)
And here's a breakdown of out-of-state arrestees:
New York (4)
Washington DC (1)
(It's worth noting that East Saint Louis is in Illinois and very close to Ferguson, although it's not clear where the Illinois arrestees came from.)
Almost every night since Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer on August 9, the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, have been mired in chaos and confusion. Whether it's accusations of police overreacting to a crowd of protesters or agitators trying to take advantage of the situation to loot and antagonize police, there's a lot going on — and a lot of conflicting reports.
If you want to stay up-to-date with all the events from day to day, Vox's Twitter list is a great place to start for news, analysis, and first-person reports. Subscribe to the list, and follow the journalists, activists, and protesters involved.
St. Louis alderman.
Reporter, the Guardian.
Secondary standoff near the QuikTrip – maybe 500m north of where all the TV cameras are pic.twitter.com/0bqmPbtkqg— Jon Swaine (@jonswaine) August 19, 2014
Reporter, the Huffington Post.
Reporter, the Huffington Post.
Incredible amount of self-policing by protesters telling each other to disperse and calm down #Ferguson— Amanda Terkel (@aterkel) August 19, 2014
If you are still in and in Canfield, LEAVE. WE WILL BE BACK TOMORROW. BUT YOU MUST LIVE TO FIGHT.— BrownBlaze (@brownblaze) August 19, 2014
Host, This Week in Blackness.
Reporter, USA Today.
Protesters refusing to leave as police say everyone but media must leave https://t.co/MeEDwBoiqh— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) August 19, 2014
Reporter, the Washington Post.
Entire residential section of ferguson is one ways and cul de sacs. Almost impossible to navigate. One reason "disperse, go home" is so hard— Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) August 19, 2014
Reporter, Los Angeles Times.
Just saw at least two arrests in front of McDonald's, cops shouting at a crowd "KEEP MOVING!" pic.twitter.com/GhC4TS6Jad— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) August 18, 2014
Trucks roll up. "Mask Up!" "Get back!" pic.twitter.com/jMRwKZaoDo— Trymaine Lee (@trymainelee) August 19, 2014
Car driver offered to give a ride home to remaining protesters. Police stopped the car, guns drawn pic.twitter.com/lK6a3LiJ4L— Amanda M. Sakuma (@iamsakuma) August 19, 2014
Riot cop to me just a few minutes ago: "Get back! Or next time you're gonna be the one maced."— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) August 18, 2014
Multimedia journalist, VICE News.
Reporter, VICE News.
Hanging out at a safe space run by volunteers, where people can find food, a place to sleep & someone who won't point guns at them #Ferguson— Alice Speri (@alicesperi) August 19, 2014
Let me get this straight. Mike Brown smoked weed, had on socks/sandals, shorts w/ no belt, weighed 295 pounds, ran 35 feet THEN charged him?— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) August 19, 2014
Reporter, New York Times.
There's no curfew in #Ferguson tonight, but the police are ordering people from the streets.— Alan Blinder (@alanblinder) August 19, 2014
Reporter, Wall Street Journal.
The folks walking around with signs on Florissant earlier in the day are not necessarily the same folks who are out as it gets darker.— Gene Demby (@GeeDee215) August 19, 2014
They said it suddenly got "unpeaceful." I was in the first two rows. Didn't see that shit. Only heard stuff suddenly firing off.— Rembert Browne (@rembert) August 14, 2014
Multimedia journalist, KSDK.
Spoke with an officer today who says she wears the shield and protective gear because she is holding the line, and she is a mom #MikeBrown— Stephanie Diffin (@DiffinKSDK) August 18, 2014
Photographer and editor, KSDK.
Capt. Ron Johnson: "We will not allow vandals, criminal elements to impact the safety and security of this community." #Ferguson— Rob Edwards (@RobertDEdwards) August 18, 2014
Local rapper and protester.
The utilities we use in the field https://t.co/4YeGArGsZR— Tef Poe/FootKlan (@TefPoe) August 19, 2014
Photographer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
#Ferguson 12 people just arrested in truck at Canfield, two pistols on arrestees & big Molotov cocktail found in bed of truck— David Carson (@PDPJ) August 19, 2014
Reporter, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
#MikeMike STL County prosecutor Bob McCulloch called me. Said Nixon replacing Chief Belmar with HWP Capt Johnson was illegal, disgraceful.— Paul Hampel (@phampel) August 15, 2014
Reporter, Riverfront Times.
Meet Alfred. No gun, but whole truck of SWAT police surrounded him. "I don't have the spirit of fear, brother." pic.twitter.com/QXZGApIICN— Ray Downs (@RayDowns) August 19, 2014
Reporter, Boston Globe.
"MSNBC turn off those lights. You are endangering lives. You are spotlighting our officers," cop with loud speaker. #Ferguson— Akilah Johnson (@akjohnson1922) August 19, 2014
The problem is, for those who want to go home, and don't live nearby, there's really not much of a way to make that happen. #Ferguson — Joel D. Anderson (@blackink12) August 19, 2014
Talked to Daryl Parks after prelim autopsy results were reported. He says findings suggest #MikeBrown was surrendering when he was shot.— errin haines whack (@emarvelous) August 18, 2014
Reporter, Sports Illustrated.
Police are apparently squeezing protestors in Florissant bottleneck. Again, we are not being allowed to document actions.— Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko) August 19, 2014
Reporter, the Daily Telegraph.
Police pointed weapon and me and Capt Johnson has threatened me with arrest. He has called squad car. V jumpy— Rob Crilly (@robcrilly) August 18, 2014
Reporter, Financial Times.
This has been the consistent pattern. Unilateral police escalation prompts minor response from more volatile elements, justifying crackdown.— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) August 19, 2014
Historian and contributor to the New Yorker.
For people who saw the Zimmerman verdict, it's a very hard sell that the legal system is capable of delivering justice in #Ferguson— jelani cobb (@jelani9) August 19, 2014
On Tuesday, August 19, The Wall Street Journal reported that St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch could begin presenting evidence about the shooting of Michael Brown to a grand jury as early as August 20. It's a possible step towards prosecuting Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson for Brown's death.
The article noted that "the prosecutor expects his office will need numerous sessions to provide jurors with findings from the Aug. 9 death of Mr. Brown and will try to have the panel start meeting several times a week."
Alex Little, a former federal prosecutor who spent six years trying violent crimes, including homicides, has criticized that strategy, and said that this news raises concerns about the local prosecutor's commitment to pursuing the case.
Little's concerns echo other criticisms of McCulloch, whose independence and dedication to pursuing the case have repeatedly been called into question since he became involved. More than 27,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that McCulloch be removed from the case. The petition cites his decision not to bring charges in a previous shooting, in which police officers killed two unarmed black men, as evidence that his continued involvement in the Brown case "will only sow further distrust and discord." On August 15, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley announced that he would lead an effort to remove the McCulloch from the case.
McCulloch has promised a thorough investigation into Michael Brown's death, telling the Wall Street Journal that "absolutely everything will be presented to the grand jury. Every scrap of paper that we have. Every photograph that was taken."
In an email exchange, Little explained to me how the process of starting a prosecution usually works, why he believes the grand jury might be a delaying tactic, and why he worries that the county prosecutor may have "abdicated his role as an advocate for justice." Here's what he had to say.
On waiting for the grand jury's decision on criminal charges:
"Prosecutors have the responsibility to make tough decisions about cases. Here, the District Attorney should review the evidence, consult with investigators, and decide whether he believes there is probable cause to charge Wilson with a crime.
"Once he has made that decision, he can — and should — take steps to implement it, either by securing Wilson's arrest or announcing that no charges will be filed.
"The idea that the District Attorney has to wait for the grand jury to spend weeks combing through the evidence is flat wrong, and if his office is promoting that explanation for its delay in acting, then it's being deliberately misleading."
On the prosecutor's "abdication" of his proper role in the grand jury process:
"Grand jurors vote on indictments that are presented to them by the District Attorney's Office. They can rely on hearsay, such as summaries of witness statements and other reports, and almost always do. The practical effect of allowing the grand jury to rely on hearsay is to speed the process along. And there is no obligation for prosecutors to present possible defenses to the grand jury. The only question the grand jury must answer is whether there is probable cause to believe a crime has occurred. That's a very low standard, and it's almost always met when the District Attorney seeks charges.
"So when a District Attorney says, in effect, 'we'll present the evidence and let the grand jury decide,"'that's malarkey. If he takes that approach, then he's already decided to abdicate his role in the process as an advocate for justice. At that point, there's no longer a prosecutor in the room guiding the grand jurors, and — more importantly — no state official acting on behalf of the victim, Michael Brown.
"Then, when you add to the mix that minorities are notoriously underrepresented on grand juries, you have the potential for nullification — of a grand jury declining to bring charges even when there is sufficient probable cause. That's the real danger to this approach."
On how McCulloch could be sending a message to grand jurors:
"Unfortunately, on too many occasions, prosecutors take this sort of hands-off approach exactly because they don't want charges to be filed, but they're afraid of taking the heat for making that decision themselves. By not taking a firm position in the grand jury proceedings and advocating for an indictment, the District Attorney is sending a message to the grand jurors that is different from what they've heard in every other case.
"And that message is clear: This time, don't return an indictment."
On the county prosecutor's statement that "absolutely everything will be presented to the grand jury":
"That isn't standard, and it isn't productive, unless the goal is to delay resolution of the case. If the District Attorney has made a decision about how to move forward, which is his obligation, he only needs to present to the grand jury a summary of the evidence that supports a charge. To be sure, he should also tell the grand jury about evidence that is exculpatory or tends to suggest there isn't a basis for an indictment, but there's certainly no obligation to give the grand jury 'every scrap of paper.' The only thing that will achieve is delay."
On the assertion that it's the grand jury's job to "sort out" whether Brown was involved in a convenience store robbery and if that played a part in the shooting:
"This description of what the grand jury is allegedly deciding is a good example of what's wrong with the District Attorney's cavalier approach. It's quite possible that, as a legal matter, Brown's potential involvement in a prior robbery is irrelevant to whether Wilson was justified in shooting him. But, if the District Attorney isn't willing to make a decision on that question, and take a stand that Wilson's actions were improper, the result is that the grand jury may be exposed to irrelevant evidence that shouldn't affect its vote on charges."
This exchange has been edited for length and clarity.
St. Louis city police officers on Tuesday shot and killed a 25-year-old black man who officers say charged at them with a knife, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The shooting comes as protests continue to grow more and more tense in nearby Ferguson, where demonstrators have taken to the streets since August 9 to protest the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said the 25-year-old yelled, "Shoot me now, kill me now," before charging at police. The officers opened fire, killing the man.
Watch Dotson's full comments:
Following the events, the Post-Dispatch reported about 150 people in the area of the shooting. The scene has reportedly grown more tense, as MSNBC's Chris Hayes reports:
The shooting of Michael Brown offers Americans yet another reminder that their criminal justice system is riddled with racial disparities. From encounters with police to prison sentences, Ferguson is another drop in a very full bucket.
Produced by German Lopez, Joss Fong, Dara Lind, Joe Posner & Lauren Williams
Design & Animation by Joe Posner & Joss Fong
Music by Shay Lynch
Black students nationally are more likely to be suspended, expelled, and arrested at school than white students. Ferguson-Florissant School District, which has delayed its first day of school by 11 days in the midst of ongoing protests, is no exception.
Black students make up 77 percent of the Ferguson-Florissant district's enrollment. But in 2011-12, they were 88 percent of all students with in-school suspensions, and 87 percent of all students with out-of-school suspensions, according to the Education Department's Civil Rights Data Collection.
Referrals to law enforcement and school-related arrests are also more common for black students: 2 percent of all black students without disabilities in Ferguson-Florissant were referred to law enforcement in 2013, compared with 0.6 percent of white students. (The Education Department separates students from disabilities from those without for data collection purposes.)
Looking at the numbers another way: 93 percent of students without disabilities referred to law enforcement in Ferguson-Florrisant were black. And every student without disabilities who was arrested for school-related reasons was black.
Meanwhile, black students in Ferguson-Florissant are also less likely to be enrolled in the gifted and talented program. Although white students are just 15 percent of the district, they make up 48 percent of enrollment in gifted classes, and they're also overrepresented — relative to black students — in calculus, chemistry and physics.
All of this aligns with national trends. If anything, the racial gap isn't quite as bad in Ferguson as it is nationally. Nationally, black students make up only about 16 percent of public school enrollment, but 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of those arrested, according to the Education Department.
Americans have been watching in shock as images come out of Ferguson, Missouri that look more like the streets of a conflict zone in Iraq or a crackdown in China than a quiet suburb of St. Louis. Protesters began to gather in the town of 21,000 after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a police officer on the afternoon of Saturday, August 9. The gatherings on Saturday were reportedly quiet and non-violent, but the police immediately responded with overwhelming force, sending 100 officers to the vigil being held at the apartment complex where Brown was killed.
Since then, police have used heavily militaristic equipment and tactics, including armored vehicles, officers in full combat gear, tear gas, and rifles with rubber bullets. Images from Ferguson have prompted several observers to note that the response was as heavily armed as actual military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Protesters and journalists alike have found themselves in the line of fire, including an eight-year-old boy who was caught in a cloud of tear gas, and a reporter from First Look media, who was shot with rubber bullets and bean bags by police, and then arrested.
Although shocking, what is happening in Ferguson is merely a particularly severe example of a much broader and long-running phenomenon: the militarization of police weaponry and tactics in the US. In part thanks to federal programs that provide military equipment to local police (though not military training), and encourage its use as part of ordinary law enforcement, police are increasingly using SWAT-style tactics in routine policing. However, experts say, this phenomenon is extremely dangerous, and can make otherwise peaceful situations dangerous — as police appear to have done in Ferguson.
If the gear in photos from Ferguson look like military equipment, that's probably because a lot of it is military equipment. Officers have been patrolling the streets in combat fatigues and full body armor, carrying rifles that an ex-Marine described in Business Insider as "short-barreled 5.56 mm rifles based on the military M4 carbine." They have also deployed MRAPs, tank-like armored trucks built by the military to withstand land mines and IEDs in Iraq, and have made heavy use of tear gas, including in residential areas.
That's happening thanks to the United States military. The Department of Defense Excess Property Program, usually known as the "1033 program," distributes surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies for use in counter-terrorism and counter-narcotic activities. Put another way, this means that the US military is giving its weapons to cities and states, with the express intention they be used on American citizens, in the course of local police work.
"It allows police departments to get pretty much any equipment that they want from the defense department," Kara Dansky, who studies the program for the American Civil Liberties Union, told me. "We've seen across the country police departments getting some pretty heavy weaponry that was built and designed for use in combat overseas, and using that equipment domestically."
The 1033 program's roots lie in the drug war — hence the counter-narcotics impetus. It was originally created in 1990, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorized the Pentagon to transfer military equipment to local law enforcement if it was "suitable for use in counter-drug activities." In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the program's focus has expanded to include counter-terrorism activities as well.
While the 1033 program's intent may have been to equip specialized units for extreme, dangerous situations, fighting al-Qaeda sleeper cells, or powerful drug cartels, the effect has been to incorporate SWAT-style raids into ordinary police operations. That includes, but is certainly not limited to, the serving of search warrants. This may partly be because the program requires that all equipment issued through the 1033 program be used within one year of the date it is granted. That means that if police departments want to keep their new gear, they can't wait for a rare emergency like an active shooter or hostage situation in order to use it.
It is likely that the 1033 program is the source of some of the equipment being used in the streets of Ferguson. In the past two years alone, according to a list obtained by Newsweek, the 1033 program has provided St. Louis County law enforcement agencies with vehicles, gun sights, night vision equipment, an explosive ordinance robot, and more.
Other federal programs add to the effect. The Edward R. Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program gives state and local governments funds to improve the functioning of their criminal justice systems and to enforce drug laws. Most of that money goes to law enforcement, including weapons purchases. "In 2012-2013," the ACLU reports, "state and local agencies used JAG funds to purchase hundreds of lethal and less-lethal weapons, tactical vests, and body armor."
Likewise, the Department of Homeland Security has programs like the State Homeland Security Program and the Urban Areas Security Initiative that provide money to police but requires they spend at least 25 percent on "terrorism prevention-related law enforcement activities."
The program does have some safeguards, Dansky said, but they tend to focus on tracking the equipment itself, to prevent police departments from illegally selling it second-hand.
The lack of formal training, or often even full documentation, leaves police departments to improvise. That can be true in police departments of all sizes that receive military equipment, but smaller departments can be especially susceptible to poor or limited training.
When the ACLU asked officials in the town of Farmington, Missouri (less than a 90 minute drive from Ferguson) to provide a copy of training materials for its Special Response Team, which is roughly like a SWAT team, the town sent only a copy of a single article. The article warned that "preparations for attacks on American schools that will bring rivers of blood and staggering body counts are well underway in Islamic training camps," and went on to say that "because of our laws we can't depend on the military to help us ... By law, you the police officer are our Delta Force."
In contrast, SWAT programs in larger cities tend to train extensively, and constantly. The Los Angeles police department's SWAT teams go through months of intensive training before being brought on, and once there spend at least fifty percent of their on-duty time training, former LAPD Deputy Police Chief Stephen Downing told me.
It is effectively impossible, Downing suggested, for small police departments to appropriately train their officers in the use of SWAT-style equipment, because they simply do not have sufficient resources or personnel. Small departments simply do not have the resources to support that type of program, but they do have the guns and trucks and armor, which they use.
Training does a lot more than just tell people how to safely use the equipment. It teaches them when and how to responsibly bring that gear into tense situations, like the one in Ferguson, in a way that will de-escalate tensions rather than escalate them, and how a police officer should change his or her behavior when upgrading from a regular uniform and sidearm to camo fatigues and an assault rifle.
"When cops, just like other human beings, are frightened — and sometimes they are! — there's a tendency to act impulsively. Which is to say: to do exactly the opposite of what they need to be doing," former Seattle police chief Norman Stamper told me. That risk is heightened significantly when cops roll heavy equipment into suburban streets.
"That's a function of training," Stamper explained. "That's on individual cops to be sure, but it's also on the organization itself. You should ask, have you trained your officers? Have you helped them develop psychological resilience and the kind of emotional heartiness that is necessary to keep cool and calm even in the face of provocation?"
SWAT teams and other specialized police units are deployed at inappropriate times, in inappropriate ways, or with insufficient training, they can escalate conflict unnecessarily, putting both officers and civilians in greater danger. The overreach in Ferguson is just one example of a broader trend of SWAT teams and military equipment being used as part of ordinary police operations — often with tragic results.
Stamper, Seattle's chief of police during the 1999 WTO riots, explained that his decision to use heavy-handed tactics against protesters then was the "worst mistake of my career." This police response, Stamper now believes, was "the catalyst for heightened tension" and a significant reason the situation escalated out of control.
In Seattle, the police department went out dressed in full body armor and gas masks that made them look "like ninjas," and used tear gas against largely-peaceful protesters. Stamper now believes that putting officers on the streets in military gear from the beginning was "an act of provocation," and that keeping officers in their normal uniforms would have been "a huge step in the right direction towards de-escalation."
"It's a lesson, unfortunately, that American law enforcement in general has not learned," said Stamper. Indeed, it is easy to see the parallels between recent police operations in Ferguson this past week and the tactics used in Seattle in 1999, with armored police showing up in overwhelming numbers in response to largely-peaceful protests. "Had you set out to make matters worse," says Stamper, "you couldn't have done a better job."
In a matter of seconds police set off tear gas declares this is no longer a peaceful protest pic.twitter.com/sCuy3PXHCg— Conetta (@BmoreConetta) August 14, 2014
The ACLU's report on police militarization documents numerous incidents in which innocent people were injured or killed by SWAT teams during the execution of warrants — an activity SWAT teams were never intended to be used for in the first place.
It's not hard to see how a bunch of heavily armed cops who have not been adequately trained might make mistakes. Eurie Stamp, a grandfather of 12, was shot and killed when SWAT officers raided his home in search of a suspect who had actually already been arrested. Ninteen-month-old Bou Bou Phonesavanh went into a medically-induced coma after a SWAT team threw a flashbang grenade into his crib. The grenade blew a hole in his face and chest, leaving a wound so deep his ribs were exposed, and covering his body in third degree burns. (The baby has since awoken from his coma, but the county is refusing to pay his medical bills.) Seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was also hit by a flashbang grenade while sleeping, then shot by a SWAT team member who fired a single shot as he entered her home.
Experienced law-enforcement officers have long warned against deploying SWAT teams too aggressively and frequently. Downing, the former LAPD chief, co-authored a paper urging police department to learn that "[t]he SWAT teams, their vehicles, armor, and weapons systems have a specific purpose and should properly be restricted to only those high-risk incidents requiring extraordinary tactics and skills that exceed the capabilities and training of traditional first responders."
"The one thing I would say is to reserve SWAT," Stamper stressed. "Reserve that equipment and those tactics for active shooter cases, barricaded suspects, armed and dangerous barricaded suspects with hostages. Do not employ those tactics, that equipment on routine drug raids or warrants service, or any other situation where you don't have what I would consider to be inherently dangerous circumstances."
Ferguson's crisis may have been driven, in part, when law enforcement indulged this same habit of overusing heavily armed police units, putting them into situations where their presence would escalate the situation rather than de-escalate it. Largely peaceful protests in Ferguson were quickly met with dramatic shows of force: camo-wearing police carrying assault rifles and aiming high-powered rifles from sniper positions atop mine-resistant armored vehicles.
This doesn't just militarize a suburban area and introduce a dangerous potential for accidents, it means that police are escalating the situation when their role, Stamper says, should be finding ways to de-escalate.
"Your mission is not to provoke, it is to de-escalate," he said, explaining that how police dress and arm themselves is a real part of that. "I think it's so important to hold those kinds of weapons in reserve, and use them or show them only when you're dealing with a violent confrontation. Keeping the peace at a demonstration essentially means having police officers in standard everyday uniforms not military garb."
There are signs that Ferguson law enforcement is finally making de-escalation a priority. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced on Thursday that law enforcement officials would take steps to "begin the process of lowering the intensity of [police-community] interactions and potential risks," but it is not yet clear what that will involve.
Experienced former law-enforcement officials I spoke to all emphasized that communication, rather than confrontation, was the best way to de-escalate a situation like the Ferguson protests in order to ensure community safety.
Ideally, Downing said, a police department would have a "reservoir of goodwill" in the community to rely on: established relationships with members of clergy and other local leaders who could assist with communication and conflict resolution during times of crisis. Standing behind an arsenal of military gear sends the opposite message, treating the community as an inherently hostile force to be suppressed, rather than as neighbors.
If that reservoir of goodwill is unavailable — as certainly seems may be the case in Ferguson — then it is still on law enforcement departments, the ex-officials said, to find a way to establish community trust. All emphasized that peace simply cannot be won by turning police into a military occupation force.
"Good police officers understand that they need to be hearing what is actually being said, listening actively to the concerns the grievances of the community, paraphrasing it and feeding it back, and saying okay, now what can we do jointly to address these problems?" Stamper explained. It's not something that can be achieved with kevlar and MRAPs. "It's a function of collaboration."
Tensions between Ferguson residents and the city's police force go well beyond the Michael Brown shooting.
That's the argument that Thomas Harvey, executive director and co-founder of ArchCity Defenders, makes. His group represents low-income residents of St. Louis County in municipal court proceedings. And in a recent paper, Harvey and colleagues looked at how the Ferguson judicial system system regularly snowballs minor, unpaid fines like traffic tickets into arrest warrants and often jail time.
"Clients reported being jailed for the inability to pay fines, losing jobs and housing as result of the incarceration, being refused access to the Courts if they were with their children or other family members, and being mistreated by the bailiffs, prosecutors, clerks and judges in the courts," the report finds.
In Ferguson, court fees and fines are the second largest source of funds for the city; $2.6 million was collected in 2013 alone. That's become a key source of tension. There is a perception in the area, Harvey says, that the black population is targeted to pay those fines. Eighty-six percent of the traffic stops, for example, happen to black residents — even though the city is 67 percent black.
"I can't tell you what's going on in the mind of a police officer but, in the mind of my clients, they're being pulled over because they're black," Harvey says. "They're being pulled over so the city can generate revenue."
Harvey and I spoke Monday about how the municipal court system in Ferguson works, what it means to residents and how that relates to the ongoing protests.
Sarah Kliff: What kind of problems have you found with how the municipal courts in areas like Ferguson work?
Thomas Harvey: What we see is that the lowest level offenses can cause really significant problems for people. We're talking about homeless folks who cannot gain access to services they need because there's a warrant for their arrest. There are poor people who can't afford to pay their tickets and then they end up with a warrant and it's a black hole. They get their license suspended and to get it reinstated they have to pay fines on tickets that they couldn't pay in the first place.
This becomes a major issue: if you can't pay your fines, you stop going to court. And then a warrant goes out for their arrest, and if they don't have the fine money they'll sit in jail until the next court date. We're talking about traffic tickets here, really the lowest level offense.
SK: Do you see ties between those interactions with authority and Ferguson, and the protests that have been happening after Mike Brown's death?
TH: Imagine if you're somebody who lives in Ferguson, who is poor. In the mind of my clients, they're being pulled over in order to create revenue for the city. They don't believe it's a public service. They believe it's about the money. For most of our clients, their contact with law enforcement comes through the municipal courts. These are poor people, they're driving to work and they're getting pulled over. And they believe it's because they're black and they're poor and the city is trying to generate revenue.
Whether the racial profiling is true, I don't know the intent of the officers pulling them over. But it's 100 percent true that is the impression that people have. I don't know what happened between Mike Brown and the police officer. Those two had never met but, before they did, all the problems I just described to you existed. And after this case is over, they will still be there. If we don't address these problems we're still going to vulnerable to other flash points like this.
There's a really fundamental distrust. I would never pretend like traffic tickets are the reason this is happening. But it is a factor. It's something that is happening in all the municipalities, and it contributes to the distrust. We hear from people who say, "I spent 25 days in jail for a traffic ticket." That happens.
SK: What type of things do your clients get pulled over for?
TH: It's always some initial moving violation, like speeding or rolling through a stop sign. Many will tell us, they feel that it's driving while black in their own community. Sometimes the police officer knows them, and knows the car wasn't registered the first time they were pulled over and goes through the whole thing again. They feel like they're being harassed and it creates this constant low level of stress.
We had one woman who was pulled over and charged with driving with a suspended license, failure to register and no proof of insurance. She was ticketed and assessed fines of $1,700. She couldn't pay that; she's a mother of three living in Section 8 housing. She didn't go to court, a warrant was issued for her failure to appear and a few months later she got into a car accident that wasn't her fault.
They saw that she had a warrant, and held her for two weeks and then took her in front of a judge. She told them I can't pay this money, so they reduced it to $700. For her, that might as well have been $700,000. What ended up happening was her mom borrowed against her life insurance policy and her sister gave her half her bi-weekly paycheck.
That was two weeks in jail for unpaid traffic tickets. And what the court learned from that, is that, if they send people to jail, they'll probably make money.
SK: Why does this system persist? Is it about generating revenue for the city, or something else?
TH: It's been in place for a long time, and I don't think it gets questioned. The most charitable reading is that the courts don't know the impact they're having on peoples' lives. For people like me this system works. If I got a traffic ticket I would pay $100 to a lawyer to represent me. I would get my speeding ticket turned into an excessive vehicle noise charge, pay a fine, the lawyer would get paid and the municipality too. It's the easiest transaction. But if you're poor, that system hurts you in ways they don't seem to have considered.
And if you look at Ferguson and Florissant, between those two municipalities they expect to net $4 million from these fines annually. That's no small amount for towns of 25,000 and 50,000. It's become a line in the budget and they're relying on it. That's the real crux of things. The courts are supposed to be the place where you administer justice, not rely on for revenue. That sense has been lost at some level in the community.
The shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, policeman Darren Wilson has revealed deep anger and frustration among residents of the St. Louis suburb. But Brown's death, and the protests that have followed it, didn't happen in a vacuum.
Vox spoke with historian Heather Ann Thompson, a professor at Temple University who writes extensively on 20th-century urban politics and criminal justice and worked on the recent National Research Council report on mass incarceration, to talk about the tense and often hostile history between African Americans and the police in America.
Dara Lind: What does history teach us about what's going on in Ferguson?
Heather Ann Thompson: There are some locally important things about this, and there are some nationally important things. There's been a lot of attention to the fact that St. Louis did not riot during the 1960s, for example. But St. Louis has always had this very tortured racial history. In July of 1917, there was one of the most brutal riots against African Americans there — scores and scores of white folks attacking blacks simply for being employed in wartime industries. There were indiscriminate attacks and, in effect, lynchings: beatings, hangings of black residents.
So the fact that St. Louis didn't erupt in the '60s is almost an anomaly or an outlying story. Because St. Louis does have very tense race relations between whites and blacks, and also between the police and the black community.
Nationally, it suggests that we haven't learned nearly enough from our history. Not just 1917, and all the riots that happened in 1919, and 1921 — but, much more specifically, from the ‘60s. Because of course, this is exactly the same issue that generated most of the rebellions of the 1960s. In 1964, exactly 50 years ago, [unrest in] Philadelphia, Rochester, and Harlem were all touched off by the killing of young African Americans. That's what touches off Harlem. It's the beating of a young black man that touches off Rochester in '64. It's the rumor that a pregnant woman has been killed by the police in Philadelphia in '64. So in some sense, my reaction to this is: of course. Because until you fundamentally deal with this issue of police accountability in the black community and fair policing in the black community, this is always a possibility.
DL: This continuity from the white attacks on black citizens after World War I, to the rioting of disenfranchised African Americans in the 1960s, is interesting. Is there a relationship between those two and between the violence of private white citizens and violence of police?
HT: On the surface they seem unrelated: you've got racist white citizens who are attacking blacks in the streets, and then years or decades later, you have the police acting violently in the black community.
In response to all those riots in the 1910s and 1920s, civil rights commissions were set up in cities, and there was pressure on both local and federal governments to address white vigilantism and white rioting against blacks. And while it was not particularly effective, it certainly had this censuring quality to it. And then what historians would agree happened is that, in so many cities, the police became the proxy for what the white community wants.
So one of the answers is that police became the front line of the white community — or, at least, the most racially conservative white community. It's the police that are called out, for example, when blacks try to integrate white neighborhoods. It's the police that become that body that defends whites in their homes.
DL: How did this play out after the unrest that you mentioned?
HT: We start the war on crime in 1965, which, of course, is very much in response to these urban rebellions. Because politicians decide that protests against things like police brutality are exactly the same thing as crime — that this is disorderly. This is criminal.
And so, police are specifically charged with keeping order and with stopping crime, which has now become synonymous with black behavior in the streets. The police, again, become that entity that polices black boundaries. And I will tell you that one of the most striking things about the media coverage of Ferguson is that they are absolutely doing what they did in the 1960s in terms of the reporting: "This is all about the looters, this is all about black violence."
DL: It certainly seems that even before any looting actually happened in Ferguson, police were anticipating that kind of thing.
HT: Any time that there is urban rebellion, the way that it is spun has everything to do with whether it's granted legitimacy. Notably, when there was rioting in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and you saw the police with fire hoses and police dogs, it was very easy for white Northerners, particularly the press, to report that for exactly what it was — which was police violence on black citizens who were protesting. Everyone's very clear about that. Sheriff Bull Connor is a racist, the police are racist, and that is why it is violent.
But the minute that these protests moved northward, the racial narrative was much more uncomfortable. "Why in the world would blacks be protesting against us good-hearted white folks in the North? And how dare they?" And what it means is that they were demanding too much, and that they were in fact just looking for trouble. So that narrative of who gets to be a legitimate protester shifts dramatically once protests move northward. It's all about violence, troublemaking, looting, and so forth.
DL: What's the response to a narrative like that?
HT: Even in the 1960s, you've got the white and black liberals who are saying, "Calm down, calm down, go home, stop this. Be peaceful." And the white community, white politicians are desperate for these black politicians to have that kind of legitimacy: "Please go out and entice people to calm down!"
Until black life is valued to the same extent white life is by members of law enforcement and by the criminal-justice community, there will be this question of legitimacy of the police and their actions, particularly among black folks who are routinely stopped. And then, people get angry. And then, people do start throwing rocks and bottles. But make no mistake about it: they don't have rubber bullets. It's never a fair fight.
DL: What we've heard from police officers is that the best way to prevent something like what's happening in Ferguson is for residents to already trust the police, to have a good relationship during so-called "normal" times — when there isn't an obvious incident. How has that worked in the past?
HT: It doesn't work. It isn't working. It's the reason why immigrant communities, for example, are terrified to call the police in times when police might be needed — for domestic violence, for times when people have been robbed or been victimized —because the police might then round them up and deport them. There's no legitimacy. The data is clear that the community knows, firsthand and every day, that the level of policing of black communities is so disproportionate to both the lethalness and the severity of crime that's taking place.
Most people are not being arrested for raping and robbing, murdering and stealing. It's this low level, oppressive policing of communities on the basis of marijuana possession. Low-level drug busts. Riding up on people. Throwing them against cars. Not because blacks do drugs more than whites, not because they possess it more, but because that's where the policing is.
DL: How does that specifically relate to what happened in Ferguson?
HT: For Ferguson, it's much more about the fact that there is an absolute unwillingness to deal with the core issues in American society about equality in the streets: [the principle that] a black citizen and a white citizen really do have equal rights under the laws. Black citizens don't believe it. They shouldn't believe it. It's not true that they have equal rights under the laws. It's not true that they have the same assumptions of innocence. It's not true that they have the same assumptions of peaceful countenance.
And so, Ferguson happens. A kid gets killed. On some level, it doesn't even matter what the circumstances are around the death. Because all that anyone needs to know is that here is yet another young African-American kid who is going about his business and he's now dead. Let's imagine that somehow he was hassling the police. Let's imagine that. Does that require a death sentence? If the same thing had happened to a suburban teen kid in an elite suburb of St. Louis, would they now be dead? Everybody knows that the answer is no. And thus, the rage.
DL: Some protesters in Ferguson are demanding that the police force should reflect the community's demographics. How essential is it to make police forces more diverse?
HT: In Detroit, in Philadelphia, in Rochester, in Harlem, and all those places [in the 1960s], when you have an all-white police force policing an all-black community, not only is there evidence that policing does not happen justly, but you have the perception and the feeling that you have kind of an occupying army in your community. I think it's kind of obvious why it's problematic.
But people misunderstand what it takes to actually integrate a police department and what the impact of that is. It's very difficult to integrate these departments. It took the rebellions of the ‘60s to put pressure on city officials to do that in most cities. In Detroit, however, even though there was a rebellion in '67, the police force does not really start to get integrated until 1973, when there's a black mayor. Indeed, he gets elected in large part because he is promising, finally, to rein in the vigilante forces in the police department and to finally integrate. It takes enormous effort to actually integrate a police department. And what seems to have happened is that that has really fallen by the wayside. Many affirmative-action clauses and statutes and pieces of city governance and university governance and certainly private business governance have made it very easy to not abide by integration rule now.
Even if police departments are integrated — certainly this has been proven in Detroit, and in other cities where you have many, many more black police officers — the problem is that police are charged with policing the community and particularly policing the poor black community. The act of policing places the police in opposition to this community. Even if the officers are black, that does not guarantee that there's going to be smooth police-community relations. Fundamentally, the problem is that there is so much targeted policing in these neighborhoods.
DL: Have there been any genuinely good policing trends in the last 20 years, or anything that police departments have developed to succeed in building trust with policed communities and policing them less?
HT: I think community policing has merit. The whole origin of community policing, which really comes out of the rebellions of the ‘60s, the pressure on departments to be representative of communities, to actually get out of cars and walk the streets and actually be part of the community — I think that was all good. l think it does have potential.
But meanwhile, we started a war on crime where we invested every last dime we had in policing and arresting and criminalizing behavior. Not just any behavior, but criminalizing black behavior. And once every resource went to that, that's how we go from having a declining prison rate to being the biggest prison populator of the entire globe. That happens because all of this attention and resources go to policing black communities.
DL: Has history taught us anything about how communities can successfully demand accountability from police after civil unrest?
HT: Unfortunately, everyone's immediate response is justice, meaning, "Let's arrest this cop. Let's put this cop on trial." I think that there's a much broader sense of justice that needs to be had.
For example, there were these killings in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1979, known colloquially as the Greensboro Massacre. This was when the police and the Klan kind of clashed with demonstrators, and people got killed, and it's really just a horrible situation.
They had a truth and reconciliation commission set up to deal with that. It's a really interesting story. What it resulted in was just pages and pages and tons of documents about what the community felt, and what the hell was going on, and who are these police, and what about the Klan?
Right now everybody's clamoring for this cop to stand trial and so forth. Is that going to heal? Is that going to change the next kid who gets pulled over and shot? Probably not. The broader question of how communities are policed and how black people are viewed and treated on the streets is fodder for something much more significant that the community needs to engage in.
CNN's Jake Tapper on Monday night criticized the police's heavy-handed approach to the people protesting the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The situation was overwhelmingly peaceful Monday night, with community leaders helping to keep the crowd calm. But that didn't prevent police officers from activating sound cannons and aiming rifles at protesters and journalists.
Here are Tapper's full remarks, via Mediaite:
I want to show you this, okay? To give you an idea of what’s going on. The protesters have moved all the way down there… they’re all the way down there. Nobody is threatening anything. Nobody is doing anything. None of the stores here that I can see are being looted. There is no violence.
Now I want you to look at what is going on in Ferguson, Missouri, in downtown America, okay? These are armed police, with — not machine guns — semi-automatic rifles, with batons, with shields, many of them dressed for combat. Now why they’re doing this? I don’t know. Because there is no threat going on here. None that merits this. There is none, okay? Absolutely there have been looters, absolutely over the last nine days there’s been violence, but there is nothing going on on this street right now that merits this scene out of Bagram. Nothing.
So if people wonder why the people of Ferguson, Missouri are so upset, this is part of the reason. What is this? This doesn’t make any sense.
A livestream of the Ferguson protests is available here — and you may want to turn your speakers down before turning on the volume, as the police presence can be extremely loud.
It looked at first like police in Ferguson, Missouri, were lashing out at journalists only incidentally. Everyone in their path seemed to be at risk of being teargassed, arrested without charge, or having assault rifles pointed at them without warning — so naturally the reporters milling around town were at similar risk. Increasingly, though, it is becoming clear that police in Ferguson are targeting journalists, using intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and physical force.
This has a much deeper and more damaging effect than just suppressing media coverage. Arresting and intimidating journalists are inherently political acts, guaranteed by design to generate attention. Much as when it's done in far-away conflict zones and authoritarian states, it's about making a statement. It's about demonstrating, to ordinary citizens even more than to journalists, that police believe they can exercise absolute control over the streets and anyone in them.
That police in Ferguson are targeting journalists so openly and aggressively is an appalling affront to basic media freedoms, but it is far scarier for what it suggests about how the police treat everyone else — and should tell us much about why Ferguson's residents are so fed up. When police in Ferguson are willing to rough up and arbitrarily arrest a Washington Post reporter just for being in a McDonald's, you have to wonder how those police treat the local citizens, who don't have the shield of a press pass.
On Wednesday, police in Ferguson roughed up and arrested Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post for failing to exit a McDonalds. According to Lowery's Twitter account, the two were "assaulted and arrested" because "officers decided we weren't leaving McDonalds quickly enough, shouldn't have been taping them." They were later released, but the fact of their arrest was enough to show how police would treat journalists in Ferguson.
Since those first arrests, police actions against journalists in Ferguson have escalated in severity and frequency.
Getty photographer Scott Olson, who's been in Ferguson all week, was arrested on Monday and stuffed into the back of a police van for no clearly discernible reason. "He was literally just across the street from the media area. Not a good sign for media access tonight," Reilly tweeted.
CNN's Don Lemon was broadcasting live from one of the town's designated protest areas when a police officer began shoving him in an attempt to physically force him to leave the area:
An Al Jazeera America TV crew, set up to safely shoot on the sidelines of a recent police deployment, had to abandon their equipment when police fired tear gas at them. After they ran, police walked over and dismantled the set-up, turning over the equipment.
Reporters have been shouted at by police, had heavy weapons pointed at them, been subjected to military-law style curfews, and been ordered to confine themselves to small, set areas when outdoors. Journalists who leave these corralled zones or venture outside during the curfew — who attempt to walk down a public suburban street in America, in other words — are threatened with arrest.
"If you walk about 100 feet from OK'ed press area you find yourself lit up by a spotlight and a squad of police on hair trigger," MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted recently from Ferguson. Later that night, as Hayes' team filmed the protests, police told them, "Media do not pass us. You're getting maced next time you pass us."
CNN reporters in Ferguson apparently feel so physically threatened, either by police or protesters or both, that they emptied a local military surplus store of its helmets.
Mustafa Hussein is a local journalist from KARG Argus radio who has spent the past week livestreaming video from the ground in Ferguson, sometimes to tens of thousands of Web viewers. Police have tried to block him from reporting so frequently that, on Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union announced it was suing the town and the county, seeking a court order from a judge telling police that they cannot bar journalists from reporting.
On Thursday, the ACLU got what they wanted: a court agreement, signed by the city and the county and the Missouri Highway Patrol chief, stating: "Parties acknowledge and agree that the media and members of the public have a right to record public events without abridgment unless it obstructs the activity or threatens the safety of others, or physically interferes with the ability of law enforcement officers to perform their duties."
Even more astounding than the fact that this was necessary is the fact that it was so quickly ignored.
On Sunday, a police officer appeared to threaten to shoot Hussein for reporting, as he was recording. The video, at the time streaming to tens of thousands of viewers, captured the officer shouting in a wildly aggressive tone what sounded like, "Get the fuck out of here and get that light off, or you're getting shot with this."
Intimidation of journalists in Ferguson is not just coming from the occasional hotheaded cop.
On Sunday night, three days after citizens of Ferguson marched alongside Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, in gratitude for Johnson taking over the heavy-handed police presence, and mere hours after Johnson gave an emotional speech apologizing for the police violence and promising its end, the savior of Ferguson ordered three journalists arrested for witnessing an apparently unprompted police crackdown on protesters.
Shortly after police in Ferguson lobbed tear gas and fired high-tech noise cannons at protesters, three reporters from major outlets attempted to walk down the street to talk to the protesters. Police approached them and ordered them to leave the area. Though the police had no legal authority to do this — it was a public street with no imminent danger — the reporters, one of them a veteran war correspondent, had perhaps heard enough reports of police in Ferguson intimidating and arresting journalists to know they should leave.
"Capt Johnson said walk away or be arrested. I started walking away. They followed and arrested us," one of the reporters, Robert Klemko of Sports Illustrated, tweeted. Another of the reporters posted a video clip showing Johnson ordering that the journalists be arrested and cuffed.
Their zip-cord cuffs were cut minutes later, but Johnson's arrests were nonetheless a success. The three reporters, and others in the area, now understood that crossing the police's ever-tightening list of restrictions on journalists, stated and unstated, no matter how arbitrary or unlawful, came with personal, bodily risk. And the police under Johnson's command saw very clearly how they were to treat the media.
The police crackdown on journalists in Ferguson has become so severe that President Obama, in public comments, had to remind police that media freedom is protected in the United States.
"Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their job and report to the American people what they see on the ground," he said. This would be banal statement if uttered about China or Russia; that the American president had to say it about his own country is a staggering sign of how badly the situation has turned.
Press freedom organizations, typically focused on abuses halfway around the world, have condemned the police behavior in Ferguson. The Committee to Protect Journalists warned that authorities were curbing journalists' "right to work freely on the streets of any American city." Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press called the police actions "unwarranted" and "unthinkable."
The parallels between Ferguson and the harassment of journalists abroad are disturbing. Consider some of these recent cases from countries we think of, rightly, as despotic and hostile to the press.
In eastern Ukraine this April, Russia-backed rebels kidnapped a Vice News reporter who had been asking to check the passports of separatists, a number of whom were actually Russian citizens, almost certainly to intimidate him and others not to pursue such stories.
In Egypt in June, the government sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists, including an Australian and a Canadian citizen, to several years in prison on transparently trumped-up charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and "reporting false news." The case is widely understood to be a warning to other journalists in Egypt: don't report news that the government dislikes, especially about the Muslim Brotherhood, or we will put you in jail for years — Western citizenship be damned.
In July, Iranian plainclothes security forces stormed the home of Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian, arresting him, his wife, and two others. Analysts generally agree the arrest was likely instigated by anti-Western hard-liners within the Iranian government, perhaps from the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Their goal was almost certainly not to muzzle Rezaian, but to undermine moderate government factions, especially the president who is engaged in nuclear talks with Western countries, and to maintain what they see as a shadow war with the West.
What these cases have in common, like many others in conflict zones and authoritarian states, is that the purpose of arresting journalists is about much more than just putting those specific reporters in prison. The arrests have much larger, political goal, in which intimidating reporters is a tool for influencing non-journalists as well.
The thinking behind intimidation of journalists in Ferguson is certainly less sophisticated and less carefully planned. But there are political ramifications too clear and powerful to be dismissed as incidental, just as there are with the police's decision to demonstrate as much force as possible, to present themselves as an occupying army that sees the Ferguson community as an enemy to be suppressed.
By forcing reporters off of streets with curfews, assaulting or threatening them when they wander out of tiny designated zones, and arresting them seemingly arbitrarily, police are doing much more than suppressing media coverage of their crackdowns. The police are signaling that they exercise total control over every inch of public space in Ferguson and believe they have the authority to treat people in that space however they wish. That message comes through clearly not just to the reporters, but to their vast audiences in Ferguson and beyond it.
A group of teens in Stone Mountain, Georgia, on Monday launched the beta version of a mobile app that will let people rate their interactions with local police, reports the Atlantic's CityLab.
The app, called Five-O, comes in response to the escalating protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting of Michael Brown. "Our parents try to put everything in context for us," Ima Christian, one of the app's developers, explained to CityLab. "They try to tell us to focus on solutions."
The app will allow anyone to rate experiences with police and view aggregate scores for local law enforcement based on other user reviews. Watch the launch video, which details the app's capabilities:
How a militarized police force reacts to modern American protests.
On Sunday night, police officers in Ferguson threatened to mace MSNBC's Chris Hayes. "Media do not pass us," you can hear them saying on the video. "You're getting maced next time you pass us."
I spoke with Hayes on Monday about his experiences in Ferguson.
Ezra Klein: I saw the video of the cop threatening to mace you. What happened before that clip?
Chris Hayes: Up the street there were a number of protestors. But a line had been drawn. We were behind a bunch of SWAT vehicles and cops in riot gear. I had inched up because I couldn't see over them. To my left was a line of officers also marching up and now I was a bit ahead of them. And one of them just flipped out and began screaming at me.
I think it's a fair assessment to say police don't really enjoy doing this job while being recorded all the time. That press freedom is beautiful is not the prevailing sentiment. In their defense, they're in a high-stress, highly adrenalized situation. It's dark. They're hearing over the police radio "shots fired!" I heard that over a police radio. It turned out to be fireworks. But they're worried they might be in danger.
EK: You arrived, I think, last Thursday. How have things changed since you got there?
CH: I was there Thursday and Friday night. I left Saturday morning and came back last night. But one thing I think people should understand that's being overlooked right now is the protests started within hours at the site of the shooting. These are low-rise apartment buildings with a street running through them on both sides. It's almost like a college campus. Brown was shot on a Saturday in broad daylight. People were home. The outrage against police began almost immediately. The family was out there screaming. Rumors were flying. The County Police came in immediately for back-up. There were these pictures of them holding long guns.
Sunday night there are protests and someone burns down the QuikTrip. Then you get the heavily militarized police presence. Then Wednesday you have the tear gas, the arrests, all that. Thursday I get into town and Jay Nixon announces he's taking control away from the local police. Thursday night feels victorious. People feel like they won. There's almost a Mardi Gras-like atmosphere. Then Friday night it's a similar atmosphere but really late there's some looting. We're talking here about politicians from Missouri and St. Louis County who are just not going to let stores get looted on their watch. So Saturday night we see the curfew and there's this high drama as it approaches. And then last night we don't even get to the curfew. Police say there were molotov cocktails in one specific place. I spoke to three members of the clergy who say there was no such thing. I can't tell you which side is right. One of MSNBC's reporters did see a protestor with a gun.
There is a small group of people on each side who desire escalation. And they're the most empowered in this scenario because it takes so little to bring it about. I was there when Captain Ron Johnson said people were intent on provocation and so they provoked and we escalated. So Johnson is saying he gave them exactly what they wanted. It creates these cycles where it's hard to see how the night doesn't end in violence.
EK: How different are the local politics from the national politics? Given the national press on this you would think that Nixon would want to do almost anything to avoid more violence, including being a bit more permissive with the protests. But it's not obvious that that's good politics locally.
CH: I can't stress the importance of that enough. Even listening to the questions being asked by local press — and the local press here is doing a great job — you notice there's a lot of law-and-order sentiment. Jay Nixon was an attorney general before he was governor. He was one of the DLC/Clinton-generation Democrats who got elected in relatively hostile territory by showing his bona fides on law-and-order. The politicians here are just not going to tolerate images of looting.
Tonight they're getting rid of the curfew. There's been this high drama to the clock striking midnight. So getting rid of the curfew is probably a smart idea in terms of removing the obvious flashpoint for a standoff.
EK: What would break the cycle here?
CH: People want to see the officer in question arrested and charged. That is what you hear across the board. Should charging decisions be made based on popular calls? No. They should be made based on facts on the ground. But there are three eyewitnesses with pretty similar stories. There's the autopsy. If the situation was reversed and Michael Brown had shot and killed Darren Wilson, he would've been arrested and charged by now.
The St. Louis County prosecutor is a guy named Bob McCulloch. Among the members of the community I've talked to there is zero trust in him to prosecute this case. There were two police shootings where he did not prosecute. He called some of the victims of one of the shootings, who were drug dealers, bums. So there's no community confidence. You have a state senator calling for a special prosecutor to be appointed. The county executive is also calling for that. But is there pressure on that from the governor or anyone else, I don't know.
Correction: This transcript originally said that Governor Jay Nixon had made the comment about provocateurs looking to escalate. It was Captain Ron Johnson.
A new Pew poll confirms the not-terribly-surprising fact that there is a huge racial gap in the public's perception of events in Ferguson. This is seen across a variety of questions they asked, but the two most important are these:
Most White Americans have confidence in the integrity of the investigation into Michael Brown's shooting, black Americans do not. Concurrently, most black Americans feel the police have gone too far in cracking down on protestors, while whites seem divided and somewhat apathetic about the issue.
Separately, we have some evidence that white people become more supportive of the criminal justice system when they are made aware of racial disparities.
On August 9, a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In the days since his death, Ferguson has been rocked by protests, some of which have turned violent. On Saturday, August 16, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew on Ferguson, closing the streets from midnight to 5am.
Here are the essential facts you need to know to understand who Brown was, how he was killed, and why the nation's eyes are on Ferguson.
Michael Brown was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson around noon on Saturday, August 9. Wilson, 28, is six-year veteran of the Ferguson police department, with no prior disciplinary record. Although the exact circumstances of the shooting remain unclear, Brown was unarmed at the time of the shooting. All shells found at the scene were from Wilson's gun.
Brown had graduated from Normandy High School in Wellston in the spring of 2014. He was planning to begin classes at Vatterott College on Monday, August 11, two days after he was killed.
Ferguson is a majority-black town. According to the 2010 census, about 67 percent of residents are black and 29 percent are white.
That racial makeup is not reflected in the town's institutions. Ferguson's mayor is white. Five of the six members of its city council are white. Six of the seven members of its school board are white.
And, most importantly, its police force is overwhelmingly white. Out of the 53 commissioned officers in the Ferguson Police Department, only three are black. And the chief of police, Thomas Jackson, is also white.
There is also evidence that the Ferguson police department, like many other local law enforcement agencies, disproportionately stops and arrests black residents. According to a racial profiling report from the Missouri Attorney General's office that was obtained by Buzzfeed, of the 5,384 traffic stops made last year, 4,632 of them — 86 percent — targeted black drivers. Only 684, or 12.7 percent, targeted white drivers, even though Ferguson is almost 30 percent white.
The report also found that innocent black people were much more likely to be searched than innocent white people were: 21.7 percent of black people who were searched were found to be carrying contraband, which means that about four out of every five of them were innocent. However, searches of white people produced a contraband "hit" 34 percent of the time.
Yet black people were also far more likely to be arrested than whites. According to the same report, 92.7 percent of all people arrested by the Ferguson police in 2013 were black, and 6.9 percent were white.
Some details of what occurred during the shooting are undisputed. Brown was originally stopped for jaywalking, because he and a friend were walking in the middle of the street. Wilson fired multiple shots at Brown, at least one of which was fired from his squad car. Brown was unarmed, and all of the shells found at the scene were from the officer's gun.
However, many of the other details of what happened remain unclear, and a police account of the shooting is different from what eyewitnesses have said happened.
Brown's friend Dorian Johnson, who was with him when the shooting occurred, gave this account to MSNBC: Johnson said that he and Brown had been walking in the middle of the street when a police officer approached and told them to use the sidewalk. They complied, and the officer began to drive away, but then threw his car into reverse and came back alongside the teens, nearly hitting them. Johnson heard Wilson say something like "What'd you say?", before trying to open his car door, slamming it into Brown. Then the officer reached out and grabbed Brown by the neck with his left hand. The two men struggled briefly, and then Wilson, still in his car, shot Brown once.
Johnson said that he and Brown both attempted to flee, but Brown was shot a second time. After the second shot, Brown turned around and surrendered, putting his hands in the air and saying, "I don't have a gun. Stop shooting!" Johnson said that Wilson then approached Brown and fired several more shots, killing him.
Eyewitness Piaget Crenshaw told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that she was waiting for a bus when she saw a police officer try to place Brown in his squad car. Then she saw Brown attempt to flee, with his hands in the air. The officer shot Brown multiple times as Brown ran away, said Crenshaw, who has provided photographs of the scene to law enforcement.
The local police who are tasked with investigating the shooting, by contrast, claim that Brown was killed after he assaulted Wilson. St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar said that the shooting occurred after Brown pushed Wilson back into his squad car, "where he physically assaulted the officer" and then struggled over Wilson's weapon. According to Belmar, Wilson then fired once from the car, and then several more times as Brown attempted to flee. Belmar's verbal account has thus far been the only source for Wilson's version of events, as no incident reports of the shooting have been released despite media requests. During a briefing on Wednesday August 13, Ferguson Police chief Tom Jackson said that Officer Wilson was injured during the encounter with Brown, and that the side of his face was "swollen" afterwards.
On Sunday, August 17, the Brown family released a preliminary report on the private autopsy they had commissioned. Michael M. Baden, who conducted the examination, found that Brown was shot at least six times, and all of the bullets were fired into his front. Baden also determined that Brown had been shot twice in the head, and that a bullet that hit the top of his head was most likely the shot that killed him.
Baden said that he did not find evidence of gunshot residue on Brown's body, which suggests that he was not shot at close range. However, Baden noted that he had not been able to test Brown's clothing, so he cannot say whether it may have had residue on it.
The St. Louis County Police are in charge of the local investigation into Brown's death. However, they have refused to release the report from the autopsy conducted by the St. Louis County medical examiner, or any details about the evidence they have gathered so far. This lack of information has become a major rallying point for the protesters, who have made repeated demands that Wilson be brought to justice.
Although Dr. Mary Case, the St. Louis County Medical Examiner who conducted the state's autopsy of Brown, has not yet released the results of her examination, she did give a brief statement to the Washington Post saying that Brown was shot multiple times in the head and chest. In addition, a "person familiar with the County's investigation" told the Post that Brown had between six and eight gunshot wounds, and had been shot from the front. The same anonymous source said that Brown had marijuana in his system at the time of his death. However, as my colleague Dara Lind has pointed out, there is no reason to believe that Brown's marijuana use was relevant to his shooting.
Although the lack of detail makes it difficult to know for sure, there are worrying signs that investigators may not be approaching the investigation in a thorough, professional manner. For instance, the police apparently did not interview Brown's friend Dorian Johnson until Wednesday, August 13, even though he was a key eyewitness.
In marked contrast with the lack of detail about the autopsy or investigation into the shooting, the Ferguson police did release information on Friday that suggested Brown may have stolen cigars from a local convenience store shortly before his death, including a copy of a police report and surveillance video footage of the alleged crime, which Ferguson police Chief Tom Jackson referred to as a "strong-arm robbery."
The video footage released by police appears to show a man taking cigars from behind the counter, and then shoving the store clerk aside when he attempted to block the door.
Jackson has been heavily criticized for releasing the footage, particularly after he indicated, hours after the release, that Wilson was not aware that Brown was a robbery suspect at the time. Jackson said that the "initial contact was unrelated to the robbery," and that Wilson was not responding to a call about the robbery. Instead, he had stopped the teen for jaywalking. As Vox's Dara Lind and Ezra Klein have noted, even if Wilson had stopped Brown because of a robbery, that fact alone would not make it legal for Wilson to shoot Brown while he was surrendering. (Jackson later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Wilson thought Brown could be the robbery suspect during the course of the stop, when he saw the packet of cigars Brown was holding.) He said he released the information to comply with requests from journalists.
On Saturday, it was reported that Jackson had released the robbery footage and police report over objections from the Department of Justice. An unnamed law enforcement source told NBC News that the DOJ had urged local police not to make the footage public, arguing that it could inflame tensions in the town.
Many local residents greeted Jackson's announcement with outrage. Brown's family said, through their lawyer, that they believed the release of the robbery footage was "strategic," and an "attempt at character assassination." And a handful of protesters in Ferguson did turn violent for several hours that night, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency the following day.
Two days after Brown was killed, on August 11, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the shooting deserved "a fulsome review" and announced that FBI agents from the St. Louis field office would conduct a "concurrent" investigation into Brown's death, working with attorneys from the DOJ's Civil Rights Division and the US Attorney's Office.
On Saturday, August 16, Johnson, of the Highway Patrol, announced that 40 FBI agents were on the ground in Ferguson and would be canvassing door-to-door in the neighborhood where the shooting took place in the hope of finding eyewitnesses to testify about what had happened. The FBI also handed out cards requesting information from local residents.
The DOJ announced Sunday, August 17, that a federal medical examiner would conduct a new autopsy of Brown's body. That will be the third time an autopsy is done in this case: the St. Louis County medical examiner performed the first one, and Brown's family also commissioned its own private autopsy.
According to a statement by Justice Department spokesperson Brian Fallon:
Due to the extraordinary circumstances involved in this case and at the request of the Brown family, Attorney General Holder has instructed Justice Department officials to arrange for an additional autopsy to be performed by a federal medical examiner. This independent examination will take place as soon as possible. Even after it is complete, Justice Department officials still plan to take the state-performed autopsy into account in the course of their investigation.
CLAYTON, MO - AUGUST 20: Police guard the front of the Buzz Westfall Justice Center where a grand jury will begin looking at the circumstances surrounding the fatal police shooting of an unarmed teenager Michael Brown (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
On Wednesday, August 20, the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office began to present evidence about the shooting to a grand jury. County Attorney Robert McCulloch has promised that "absolutely everything will be presented to the grand jury. Every scrap of paper that we have. Every photograph that was taken." He estimates that the grand jury process could last until October.
Former prosecutor Alex Little told Vox that McCulloch’s grand jury strategy seems like a "delaying tactic": "When a District Attorney says, in effect, ‘we’ll present the evidence and let the grand jury decide,’" Little said, "that’s malarkey." The approach, said Little, suggests that "he’s already decided to abdicate his role in the process as an advocate for justice. At that point, there’s no longer a prosecutor in the room guiding the grand jurors, and — more importantly — no state official acting on behalf of the victim, Michael Brown."
Many law enforcement agencies have played roles in the investigation into Brown's death, and in the security response to the protests that followed. At times, this has caused serious problems.
Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, works for the Ferguson Police Department. After the shooting, Ferguson's police chief asked the St. Louis County Police to take over the investigation, so they are the ones who are tasked with gathering evidence for a potential case against Wilson.
From August 9 through August 13, there were at least four police departments in Ferguson participating in the security operation: the Ferguson Police Department, the St. Louis County Police Department, the St. Louis City Police Department, and the Missouri Highway Patrol. There were also reports that additional police from other nearby towns were also on the scene.
For the first few days of the protests, command of the security operation in Ferguson rotated between different departments, Jackson, Ferguson's police chief, said during a press conference. As my colleague Dara Lind points out, that system was a disaster in terms of police accountability:
More importantly, it made it impossible for one police chief to be held accountable for what officers are doing in Ferguson. It wasn't clear what the relationship was between an "incident commander" who was making decisions at the protest site, and the chief of his police department. But because the public didn't even know which agency the "incident commander" was with, it was impossible to demand that that police chief restrain his officers. When Ferguson chief Jackson gave his press conference Wednesday, he was asked whether there would be tear gas used on Wednesday night. He said, "I hope not." But he honestly couldn't make any promises, because it turned out that the St. Louis County police were the ones in charge. Now, Governor Nixon has officially designated the Missouri Highway Patrol as the agency to whom the public should be directing their demands for accountability and de-escalation.
On Thursday, August 14, Gov. Nixon "reframed" the command for the security operation in Ferguson, placing Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, a Ferguson native, in charge of security operations. Although multiple departments are still participating in the operation, they are now under a single non-rotating command. Johnson has publicly acknowledged that communication between departments is poor, with Ferguson police releasing information about the case without telling him first.
Protests erupted in Ferguson as soon as news of Brown's death began to spread. A crowd began to gather around the scene of the shooting almost immediately, while Brown's body was still lying in the road. His body would remain there for several hours. (Ferguson Police Chief Jackson later said that he was "uncomfortable" with the amount of time that Brown's body had been left on the ground.) After the demonstration at the scene dispersed, a smaller group of approximately 100 people gathered outside Ferguson police headquarters and continued to protest.
Non-violent protests continued on Sunday, but tensions began to rise between the demonstrators and the police, who had deployed with military equipment and body armor. One video, from CNN, showed an officer shouting at protesters to "bring it, you fucking animals! Bring it!"
The protests briefly erupted into violence on the night of Sunday, August 10, when a group of people looted and burned a QuikTrip convenience store. A SWAT team used tear gas to disperse the looters, and at least 32 people were arrested.
Protesters remained largely non-violent during the demonstrations from Monday to Thursday, but on Friday night there was more looting. A group of community leaders organized non-violent protesters to protect the businesses being targeted, and they eventually managed to defuse the situation, and the looters dispersed by about 4am.
On Saturday August 16, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency, and announced that there would be a curfew from midnight to 5 am. Most protesters obeyed the curfew over the next two nights, but the the areas did not clear without a certain amount of turbulence, with police using tear gas to disperse crowds — in some instances hitting children and journalists — and in response to what they say was violence from protesters.
Although the protests have been largely peaceful, they have nevertheless drawn an extremely heavy police response. On Saturday, more than 100 officers from 15 different local departments arrived at the scene, bringing police dogs in an effort to control the crowd. The departments' use of dogs has since been roundly criticized by law enforcement experts, with former Seattle Police Chief Norman Stamper saying that "using dogs for crowd control is operationally, substantively, and from an image point-of-view just about the worst thing you can do."
The aggressiveness of the security operation escalated even further during the following days, and involved the use of military equipment and tactics. Officers deployed through the streets wearing full body armor and gas masks, and carrying rifles. They also used MRAP armored vehicles originally designed to withstand explosions from land mines or IEDs, and a sound weapon called a Long Range Accoustic Device, or LRAD.
Some improvement was seen on Thursday the 14, after Capt. Johnson from the highway patrol was placed in charge of the security operations.
Johnson's tactics emphasized communication over confrontation, and they immediately produced a much calmer atmosphere in Ferguson. On Thursday evening, he marched with protesters, and apologized for the use of tear gas. Later that night, he spoke to the press while holding a photograph of Michael Brown — a powerful symbol of respect.
Three different autopsies have been or are being conducted on the body of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was shot by police in Ferguson, MO on August 9th. The first of them was the autopsy conducted by St. Louis County — the jurisdiction conducting the criminal investigation into Brown's death, to see if Officer Darren Wilson should be charged with a crime. It included a toxicology test, which can only be done once.
Even though the results of the autopsy itself haven't been released to the public yet, a source with the county government told the Washington Post on August 18th that the toxicology test showed that Brown had marijuana in his system at the time he was killed. (This doesn't mean he was intoxicated when he was killed, just that he had consumed marijuana at some point in the last 30 days.)
This doesn't tell us much. There's no link between marijuana use and aggression (and even if there was, a general link wouldn't tell us about a specific case like this one). Moreover, the toxicology test doesn't have any impact on whether or not it was legal for Wilson to shoot and kill Brown. The legal standards for cops shooting civilians focus on the officer's behavior in the situation.
Anyone who says it's important that Brown had marijuana in his system when he was killed isn't making an argument about legality. They're making an argument about Brown's character. And that's simply not the question that St. Louis County is supposed to be answering right now.
The extremely militaristic police response to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which have occurred nightly since a police officer shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown to death on August 9, has shocked many Americans.
In its tactics, appearance, and especially equipment, the security operation looks more like it belongs on a battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan than in the streets of an American suburb. Armored vehicles, tear gas, full combat gear, rifles — what is all that?
From LRADs to MRAPs, here's a brief guide to the equipment being used against civilians in the St. Louis suburb.
Warning: do not click this video with the volume on your computer turned up. You will regret it.
The LRAD, or Long Range Acoustic Device, is basically a sound cannon: it has the ability to send loud, targeted bursts of sound designed to disperse military targets, pirates, and crowds. They are not just noisy. The sound they emit is powerful enough to cause severe physical pain and headaches to those in range. According to an executive at the firm that manufactures LRADs, the devices can also cause permanent hearing loss if used in anything more than short bursts.
Police appeared to use LRADs to disperse the Ferguson protesters on Sunday, August 17, and Wednesday, August 13. Video of their use on Sunday, part of which is embedded above, appeared to show them in continuous use for several minutes. LRADs look like large satellite dishes and are typically mounted on top of trucks. The police-grade model in apparent use in Ferguson emits sound at up to an ear-shattering 149 decibels, well above the 130-decibel threshold for hearing loss.
In the short video linked above, you can hear the LRADs and see them mounted on the armored trucks in the background of the shot.
Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles, or MRAPs, are heavily armored trucks designed to withstand the detonation of land mines or IEDs. They were first deployed by the US military in 2007, designed specifically for use in Iraq, where al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed Shia militias were using highly developed IEDs. Now the vehicles are being passed down to police departments.
Asked why MRAPS were being used in Ferguson, a place with neither land mines nor IEDs, Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson replied that "people are using bombs now." However, there have been no reports of bombs being used in Ferguson — he may have been making an existential point about bombs being items that exist in the world.
While MRAPs certainly look tank-like, particularly when rolling down a suburban America street, they are not in fact tanks because they drive on wheels rather than treads and lack a cannon.
The gentleman on the left has more personal body armor and weaponry than I did while invading Iraq. pic.twitter.com/5u6TxyIbkk— Brandon Friedman (@BFriedmanDC) August 14, 2014
The officers on the streets in Ferguson have deployed wearing body armor, including gas masks and visors, prompting a number of military veterans to point out that the police are wearing more protective gear to confront protesters than actual soldiers typically wear while on patrol in active war zones.
Former Seattle police chief Norman Stamper warned that when police dress in military uniforms, they contribute to an atmosphere of hostility that can actually escalate the risk of violence, rather than suppress it.
"Keeping the peace at a demonstration essentially means having police officers in standard everyday uniforms, not military garb," Stamper said. Otherwise, they can come to "view the community as the enemy. In the process they become an occupational force where they are in charge — in the name of control, in the name of public safety, taking actions that actually undermine legitimate control."
The police in Ferguson are armed with rifles, which former Marine Paul Szoldra described in Business Insider as "short-barreled 5.56 mm rifles based on the military M4 Carbine." Numerous reports from Ferguson indicate that the rifles are frequently pointed at people who pose no immediate threat, as a way to intimidate civilians into compliance with police orders.
It appears that the rifles are loaded with rubber and wooden bullets, which are less lethal than standard ammunition, but can still cause severe injury. Moreover, protesters who find themselves in rifle sights may not have an opportunity to verify what kind of bullets they contain, making the rifles just as intimidating to citizens as they would be if they contained "real" ammunition.
The use of the rifles prompted further criticism from military veterans, who pointed out that the police were using them in a way that was likely to aggravate hostilities, rather than calming the situation.
A few people have pointed it out, but our ROE regarding who we could point weapons at in Afghanistan was more restrictive than cops in MO.— jeffclement (@jeffclement) August 14, 2014
Postures tell story of perceived threat. L: aggressive security during AJ camera dismantling. R: patrolling in Iraq. pic.twitter.com/b3q7cyPvG4— Alex Horton (@AlexHortonTX) August 14, 2014
Police have used tear gas to disperse protesters on several nights of the Ferguson demonstrations. On the evening of Sunday, August 17, an eight-year-old boy was left gasping for breath after gas hit the group of protesters where he was standing.
Tear gas is a chemical mist or gas that irritates the mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs. In addition to tears, it can cause coughing or choking if inhaled, as well as severe pain. Although in most cases it merely causes temporary symptoms, it can have more serious effects, including asthma attacks, eye damage, and chemical burns.
The gas is often fired from cartridges or shells, which can also be dangerous projectiles themselves, causing bruising, broken bones, and even death.
The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, to which the US is a party, prohibits the use of tear gas in combat. However, that treaty contains an exception for "law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes," which allows tear gas to be used by police officers in situations like the Ferguson protests.
That means that using the gas in Ferguson doesn't necessarily break the law, but the U.S. army would be violating a treaty if it used the same tactics in Afghanistan.
Tear gas is effective at dispersing crowds because its key ingredient — called 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile — triggers the activation of huge numbers of pain receptors in the eyes, as well as irritation in the throat and difficulty breathing. This causes a person's eyes to start tearing and closing involuntarily, effectively incapacitating that person within seconds.
A large number of people in Ferguson — including an eight year-old boy and a group of journalists — have suffered from these symptoms, and there are various photos showing them using a number of different remedies (such as milk and water) to treat tear-gas exposure.
But the unfortunate truth is that effectively treating exposure to tear gas is very difficult, and the best protections and remedies are solely in the hands of medical professionals. Even worse, we still know virtually nothing about the gas' long-term effects. Here's a rundown of what researchers have discovered about dealing with the effects of tear gas:
The most effective defense against tear gas is a gas mask. But gas masks and filters aren't easily available to civilians.
Some protestors have often used a pair of goggles and a wet bandana worn over the mouth to minimize the tear gas' effects on the respiratory system (historically, protesters have used bandanas soaked in lemon juice, cider vinegar, Coca-Cola, or other acidic solutions, though it's not proven that this is more effective). These measures won't fully protect someone by any means, but they can temporarily reduce the amount of tear gas entering the body, giving a person a few extra moments to escape.
Once someone has been exposed to tear gas — whether wearing protection or not — the best thing to do is to get out of the gas-filled area as soon as possible. Simultaneously, experts recommend that victims cough, spit, and blow their noses in an attempt to get as much of the chemical out of their bodies as soon as possible.
People with conditions that make them especially vulnerable to tear gas — such as asthma, other respiratory diseases, or immune system disorders — as well as infants and the elderly should seek professional medical help immediately.
Once in a secure location, it's crucial for anyone exposed to tear gas to wash out their eyes thoroughly until the symptoms begin to subside. If the person is wearing contacts, they need to be removed and thrown away.
Protestors in Ferguson have sometimes been using milk as a rinse — and victims of tear gas in other protests around the world have used a variety of remedies, such as lemon juice or a mix of Maalox (or other antacid) and water. But these treatments haven't been clinically tested, so it's hard to say if they're better than water, which is still the rinse proven most effective in clinical trials.
(There is also a chemical called diphoterine that has been shown to be a more effective rinse and is sometimes used in emergency rooms, but it's not widely available apart from medical supply companies.)
Apart from tearing and involuntarily blinking, tear gas also causes a longer-term inflammatory response in a person's eyes and skin — and this can take a few days to subside. Initially, it's recommended that victims take cold showers, because warm water can open up a person's pores, allowing further tear gas particles to enter.
Afterward, any piece of clothing or object that was exposed to the tear gas needs to be thoroughly washed or thrown away. Structures hit by tear gas need to be similarly decontaminated of residue, a process that's especially difficult if tear gas has been deployed indoors.
The long-term effects of tear gas on people have barely been studied and are essentially unknown.
The announcement came after the St. Louis suburb endured another night of violence as several agitators, whom Brown's family and other protest leaders condemned, engaged in shootings, hurled Molotov cocktails, and vandalized various businesses. Security officials reported at least three injuries, although none were police officers.
"Tonight, a day of hope, prayers, and peaceful protests was marred by the violent criminal acts of an organized and growing number of individuals, many from outside the community and state, whose actions are putting the residents and businesses of Ferguson at risk," Nixon said in a statement. "These violent acts are a disservice to the family of Michael Brown and his memory, and to the people of this community who yearn for justice to be served, and to feel safe in their own homes."
The National Guard is a branch of the US military with armed forces in each state that are typically left under state control to allow governors to respond to and handle emergency situations. In this case, the National Guard will provide extra resources and troops to help various police agencies deal with the increasing tide of conflict in Ferguson.
Although the National Guard can be federalized and launched under the president's watch, the White House told BuzzFeed it "did not know" the National Guard is being deployed in Ferguson. Nixon gave "no heads up," an unnamed Obama administration official said.
Various police departments are already involved in Ferguson, including local police, the St. Louis City Police, the St. Louis County Police, and the Missouri Highway Patrol. The various agencies, however, haven't been able to prevent the escalation of the protests, some of which media and protesters argue has been driven by a heavy-handed crackdown from militarized police forces.
John Oliver's monologue on the protests in Ferguson in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown is exactly as angry and hilarious as you might want it to be. On last night's episode of his HBO series, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, he took on everything from the way Ferguson's police chief and mayor have handled the situation to police militarization to how two teenagers in Saginaw County, Michigan, deal with seeing one of those giant tank-like vehicles on the streets of their town.
Here's just a taste: "No one should ever be allowed to say there is no history of racial tension here, because that sentence has never been true anywhere on Earth."
We won't spoil the best part for you, but Oliver and his team have dug up just what one police department put in the document requesting military-grade equipment. It's as ridiculous as you might expect.
If you have the time, watch the whole thing. If you only have a couple of minutes, go to 12:40 and watch the last 149 seconds. That's a great summary of what Oliver is saying, and one of the best summaries of the problems with police militarization yet.
See Vox's comprehensive roundup of what's known and what's not yet known about Michael Brown's death and subsequent events in Ferguson. Here's our video explaining Ferguson's crisis and its roots in two minutes:
On Sunday, August 17, the ninth night of protests and the second night of a mandatory curfew imposed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, protests in Ferguson again turned chaotic and violent. Police fired tear gas into a crowd of protesters, hitting at least one child, according to reporters at the scene.
Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who's in charge of security at the Ferguson protests, said at a press conference that police actions were prompted by violent acts, including shootings, hurled Molotov cocktails, and vandalism of various businesses, before the curfew went into effect. Johnson said police had to call in additional support to deal with the escalating situation.
Three people were injured and seven or eight were arrested throughout the night, according to police reports. No officers were injured.
"We are planning additional steps to calm the violence," Johnson said. He would not elaborate on what those additional steps will look like.
— St. Louis County Police Department tweeted a warning shortly before the tear gas began.
Molotov cocktails being thrown at police. Tactical units on scene. Please leave the area!— St. Louis County PD (@stlcountypd) August 18, 2014
— And then police in riot gear moved in, ordering everyone to go home well before the 12 a.m. curfew.
— Some protesters had to be treated for tear gas burns.
— Some reporters pointed out the situation is total chaos.
God #ferguson looks like a civil war.— jelani cobb (@jelani9) August 18, 2014
— A later report of gunshots — around 10:30 p.m. local time — were later clarified by police to be fireworks.
Report of shots fired has been cleared as fireworks, police say. #Ferguson— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 18, 2014
— Some reporters said they were briefly arrested by Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Johnson, who's in charge of security in Ferguson.
Captain Johnson arrested us for 2 minutes. We pleaded that we had followed every instruction. He let us go.— Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko) August 18, 2014
— Reporters pointed out that it's very difficult to report what's going on, because police are threatening journalists and pushing them into specific areas.
Had police not corralled reporters, and if molotovs had been thrown, St Louis PD tweet could have been confirmed more readily. #ferguson— Ben Kesling (@bkesling) August 18, 2014
Boston Globe reporter RT @akjohnson1922: Cop just told photog to "back the fuck up or ill shot.""— Charles Ornstein (@charlesornstein) August 18, 2014
— One livestream operator caught a cop threatening to shoot him on camera.
The reports coming out of Ferguson, MO, tonight show protests erupting into chaos on the ninth night since Michael Brown's killing. But because new developments in Ferguson — like police firing tear gas into crowds of protesters — can happen suddenly and without warning, it can be difficult to follow what's happening and where.
SB Nation's Travis Hughes built a map of the Ferguson protests, using Google Maps data. The map explicitly refers to tonight's protests, but it's also a good map of the area where protests have been concentrated since Brown's death on August 9th:
In the video, a police officer appears to be heard yelling to a reporter, "Get the fuck out of here and get that light off, or you're getting shot with this." However, the audio is not entirely clear. Later on, the reporter with KARG Argus radio quotes the police officer as having said to him, "Get the fuck out of here or I will shoot you with this."
Update: This post has been updated to reflect some of the difficulty in hearing some of the words in the audio recording.
Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown at least six times, according to a preliminary, independent autopsy report obtained by the New York Times. All the shots appeared to come from the front, and at least two struck Brown on the head.*
One of the bullets appears to have hit the top of Brown's head. "This one here looks like his head was bent downward," Dr. Michael Baden, who conducted the autopsy on behalf of Brown's family, told the New York Times. "It can be because he's giving up, or because he's charging forward at the officer."
It didn't appear the bullets were fired at close range, because there was no gunpowder residue on Brown's body. There could be gunpowder residue on Brown's clothes, which Baden didn't have access to during his inspection.
Baden told the New York Times that Brown would not have survived the shooting even if he had been taken to the hospital right away.
The federal government will conduct a third autopsy on Brown's body, at the request of Brown's family. The St. Louis County prosecutor did not release the details of his department's own autopsy on the body.
*Correction: The original version of this article stated that the autopsy found Brown had been shot in the head three times. It was actually two times.
Police hit an 8-year-old boy with tear gas during protests in Ferguson, MO on Sunday night, according to reporters at the Huffington Post.
Ryan Reilly, a reporter who has been in Ferguson this past week, tweeted this video:
And his colleague Amanda Terkel posted this photograph of the same child:
Tensions have been rising over the weekend in Ferguson, with a protest growing Sunday night and police there once again deploying tear gas against the crowd.
While the Geneva Convention bans tear gas use in international warfare, police departments both in the United States and abroad have increasingly turned to the chemical weapon as a means of dispersing crowds. You can read more about what tear gas does to the body here, and Vox's ongoing coverage of the Ferguson protests here.
Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol gave a riveting speech earlier today at a rally to call for justice for Michael Brown, held at Ferguson, Missouri's Greater Grace Church. In the speech, Johnson pledges solidarity with the community and calls for Michael's memory to help the world become a better place.
"We all ought to be thanking the Browns for Michael, because Michael's gonna make it better for our sons, so they can be better black men," he says.
Watch the speech below, then read a full article on the rally at CNN.
Read all of Vox's coverage on the events in Ferguson.
The federal government has ordered a third autopsy of Michael Brown, according to a statement from Justice Department spokesperson Brian Fallon:
Due to the extraordinary circumstances involved in this case and at the request of the Brown family, Attorney General Holder has instructed Justice Department officials to arrange for an additional autopsy to be performed by a federal medical examiner. This independent examination will take place as soon as possible. Even after it is complete, Justice Department officials still plan to take the state-performed autopsy into account in the course of their investigation.
The St. Louis County medical examiner performed the first autopsy. The only detail the county released was that Brown died of gunshot wounds, which is probably the one fact about his death that is not a mystery. It is still unclear how many gunshot wounds Brown had, where they are located, and from what range the gun was fired.
The DOJ has already opened a civil rights investigation into the shooting death of Brown, who was unarmed when Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson shot him on August 9. The feds have previously taken issue with the local investigation. An unnamed law enforcement source told NBC News that the DOJ urged Ferguson police not to release a surveillance tape that shows a man, allegedly Brown, stealing cigars and pushing a clerk right before the shooting. Reportedly, the DOJ feared it would increase community anger. Local police released the tape on Friday. And here's what's been happening in the streets of Ferguson since.
Correction: This story initially said that the federal autopsy would be the second autopsy of Michael Brown. In fact, it's the third. Brown's family also had an autopsy done. Thanks to MSNBC's Chris Hayes for pointing this out.
Most protesters appeared to have obeyed the new midnight curfew in Ferguson on Saturday night. But about 150 remained outside and briefly faced off with police, and some fired gunshots and critically wounded a man.
Nearly an hour after the curfew went into effect, police fired smoke and tear gas at the protesters in an effort to disperse the crowd. Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, captain of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said the tear gas was used in response to reports of gunshots.
As police moved in, most of the remaining protesters appeared to leave. Police detained seven people for staying out past curfew.
Until Johnson's 3 a.m. press briefing, many of the night's details were unclear. It was very difficult for reporters throughout the evening to do their jobs, because they were confined to a media zone during curfew hours that was out of sight of a majority of the action. Police threatened to arrest reporters who tried to leave the media zone.
After giving multiple warnings, police fired smoke and tear gas into protesters in Ferguson to enforce the midnight curfew.
At first, police moved in and demanded protesters disperse in "a peaceful manner." Over the loudspeakers, police said, "Failure to comply will result in arrest and/or other actions."
Police began slowly moving forward.
Some reporters pointed out the crowd is ethnically diverse.
Many of the protesters that are still here are white #Ferguson— Alice Speri (@alicesperi) August 17, 2014
*Update: Added a note about the conflicting reports of tear gas and smoke.
The new curfew policy implemented Saturday night by Governor Jay Nixon and Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson appears to have been largely successful, with the overwhelming majority of protesters dispersing before midnight as instructed.
An assist appears to have been provided by Mother Nature, who came through with a rainstorm that intensified right around midnight.
pouring. not easy to type tweets could be difficult for journos in rain— Amy K. Nelson (@AmyKNelson) August 17, 2014
Rain really is the best form of crowd control. #Ferguson— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 17, 2014
Beyond natural factors, a broad array of community leaders spent the evening imploring citizens to follow the terms of the curfew. Even the New Black Panther Party was urging compliance.
Police blocking each end of the Avenue. Black Panthers imploring people to go home. Rain falls. The crowd thins but not gone. #Ferguson— Charlie LeDuff (@Charlieleduff) August 17, 2014
But a small group of holdouts is still out in the streets, with the police so far hesitating to confront them too aggressively.
Demonstrators have made a barricade of cars across West Florissant. pic.twitter.com/6YQa11adtW— Antonio French (@AntonioFrench) August 17, 2014
About 150 protesters in Ferguson are ignoring the curfew and remaining in the streets — and the heavy rain — after midnight.
About 150 people are out on the streets in violation of curfew, according to police radio. Can hear chants of "we ready" at end of street— Joel D. Anderson (@blackink12) August 17, 2014
Some community leaders reportedly built a barricade between police and protesters to buy time and avoid conflict.
Pastors have parked cars to dissect W Florissant between cops at one end and protesters at other. Want to buy time pic.twitter.com/VNLU4btsej— Jon Swaine (@jonswaine) August 17, 2014
The remaining protesters want action taken against Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. On a live stream, protesters could be heard chanting, "No justice, no curfew!"
Raining pretty hard now. Defiant group of protesters still out in the street. "Indict him and we leave!" shouts a protester. #Ferguson— Ray Downs (@RayDowns) August 17, 2014
Police warned some protesters may have guns.
Many people reporting men with guns, not police, in the area of W. Florissant. We have received several calls stating the same.— St. Louis County PD (@stlcountypd) August 17, 2014
The curfew rules put in place in Ferguson tonight make it impossible for journalists in town to legally report on whatever happens after midnight in confrontations between police and people who refuse to obey protest rules.
Media confined to staging area in front of Ferguson Market from midnight to 5. If outside area, subject to arrest. #Ferguson— Jean Buchanan (@JABuchanan) August 17, 2014
So basically I can't do my job of witnessing if I'm in the pen and could get arrested outside it.— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) August 17, 2014
You can see how this comes about, logistically, but it means that if things go badly tonight the public could end up in the dark about what went down.
Here's what the First Amendment pen looks like. pic.twitter.com/OzjSSTfkFE— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) August 17, 2014
Amy Nelson on the ground in Missouri reports that this means in practice a return to the more heavy-handed police tactics we saw earlier in the week:
Missouri State Highway Patrol just showed up. They will be blocking off the liquor mart parking lot w yellow tape as holding pen for media.— Amy K. Nelson (@AmyKNelson) August 16, 2014
and then once curfew hits, will be patrolling the street asking people to go home. Will officers be in riot gear? "Most yes," rep told me.— Amy K. Nelson (@AmyKNelson) August 17, 2014
Forty FBI agents have arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to investigate the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson announced Saturday.
According to Johnson, who is currently in charge of security in Ferguson, the agents were already canvassing the neighborhood where Brown was killed, seeking eyewitnesses to the killing and other evidence.
The FBI also handed out cards requesting information from local residents, which could be filled out and returned to investigators directly, or to members of the local clergy.
In a statement emailed to the local CBS affiliate on Friday, the DOJ confirmed that attorneys from the DOJ's Civil Rights Division and the US Attorney's Office were also participating in the federal civil rights investigation.
"At the onset of our federal civil rights investigation, the Attorney General of the United States promised a thorough and complete investigation into the shooting death of Michael Brown. That investigation is proceeding. We can confirm that FBI agents, working together with attorneys from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and US Attorney’s Office, have already conducted several interviews of witnesses on the scene at the time of the shooting. Over the next several days, teams of FBI agents will be canvassing the neighborhood where the shooting took place to identify any individuals who may have information related to the shooting and have not yet come forward. We ask for the public’s cooperation and patience, and again urge anyone with information related to the shooting to contact the FBI. The FBI can be reached at (800) CALL-FBI, option 4."
On Saturday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced that he had declared a state of emergency in Ferguson. He also stated that there will be a curfew from midnight to 5 a.m. starting on the night of Saturday, August 16.
The curfew comes in response to looting during the night before. Most of the protesters rejected the looting and attempted to stop it, but a small group of teens reportedly took advantage of the situation to steal from stores, including the store Michael Brown is accused of stealing cigars from.
Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who's in charge of security in Ferguson, suggested security will resist a heavy-handed response while enforcing the curfew. "We won't enforce it with trucks, we won't enforce it with tear gas, we will communicate," he said.
Nixon acknowledged that a majority of the protesters didn't participate in the looting, but he said the curfew — and the declaration of a state of emergency that allows the curfew — were necessary to maintain law and order.
"This is not to silence the people of Ferguson or this region or others," Nixon said, "but to contain those who would endanger others."
Mother Jones' Kevin Drum puts it simply:
We've spent the past two decades militarizing our police forces to respond to problems that never materialized.
The two problems were the drug-fueled crime wave of the '70s and '80s and the post-9/11 fear that local police forces would soon be overwhelmed with local terrorist plots. In America, big problems require big guns, and so one response to these fears was the so-called "1033 program", where the Department of Defense distributed surplus military equipment to local police forces. As Amanda Taub explains:
The 1033 program's roots lie in the drug war — hence the counter-narcotics impetus. It was originally created in 1990, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorized the Pentagon to transfer military equipment to local law enforcement if it was "suitable for use in counter-drug activities." In the wake of the September 11th attacks, the program's focus has expanded to include counter-terrorism activities as well.
While the 1033 program's intent may have been to equip specialized units for extreme, dangerous situations, fighting al-Qaeda sleeper cells or powerful drug cartels, the effect has been to incorporate SWAT-style raids into ordinary police operations. That includes, but is certainly not limited to, the serving of search warrants. This may partly be because the program requires that all equipment issued through the 1033 program be used within one year of the date it is granted. That means that if police departments want to keep their new gear, they can't wait for a rare emergency like an active shooter or hostage situation in order to use it.
So police have all this military equipment, very little training on how to use it, and a requirement that they deploy it within a year. But the problems they were supposed to use the equipment against have either eased or vanished.
The crime wave that ripped through the country in the '70s and '80s broke in the '90s and continued to fall through the Aughts. There were 23,000 murders in 1980. There were 14,827 in 2012. (Note that America's population grew by more than 80 million people during that time.) Meanwhile, al Qaeda never became a major problem for local law enforcement.
The result is that the equipment gets used — and used badly — to put down mostly peaceful protests in places like Ferguson, or to raid organic farms. And it can mean that communities come to view their militarized police forces as a threat:
It became so clear the awfulness of the situation. Communities need police. But here & now, the slightest police presence enrages people.— Antonio French (@AntonioFrench) August 16, 2014
"Police militarization was a mistake," concludes Drum. "You can argue that perhaps we didn't know that at the time. No one knew in 1990 that crime was about to begin a dramatic long-term decline, and no one knew in 2001 that domestic terrorism would never become a serious threat. But we know now. There's no longer even a thin excuse for arming our police forces this way."
Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman, has been a constant presence in Ferguson, Missouri, since Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9. On Twitter and Vine, French has fearlessly documented the nightly protests. Friday night, after days of largely nonviolent demonstrations, a handful of what he calls "troublemakers" changed the tone and began looting several stores in the area. Read French's description of how he, local activist Anthony Shahid, and others tried to stop them, and why it was best for police to keep their distance and let the events play out:
Multiple reports indicate that heavily armed police are back in Ferguson, asking crowds to disperse, stop blocking the road, and go home at this late hour. Some protesters are reportedly looting.
Things are getting tense https://t.co/qrKkhmSzZC— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 16, 2014
Police: "You must disperse immediately." Protestors: "Or what?!" #Ferguson— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) August 16, 2014
Some people are definitely shooting off fireworks to create even more confusion. #Ferguson— Joel D. Anderson (@blackink12) August 16, 2014
Weapons pointed as us journos trying to capture the scene, we were forced back into crowd— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 16, 2014
Watch a live feed of the protests here.
In a searing post for Deadspin, Greg Howard wrote:
Brown's mother, Leslie McSpadden, said that he was funny and could make people laugh. He graduated from high school in the spring, and was headed to college to pursue a career in heating and cooling engineering. Monday would have been his first day.
Brown was One Of The Good Ones. But laying all this out, explaining all the ways in which he didn't deserve to die like a dog in the street, is in itself disgraceful. Arguing whether Brown was a good kid or not is functionally arguing over whether he specifically deserved to die, a way of acknowledging that some black men ought to be executed.
During Friday's press conference, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson tried to sow doubt that Brown really was One Of The Good Ones. He released stills from a "strong-arm robbery" showing someone who might be Brown grabbing a convenience-store clerk by his collar and throwing him backwards. The Good Ones don't rob convenience stores. The Good Ones don't assault clerks.
But this is a sick conversation. The Good Ones don't deserve to be shot when they're surrendering. But neither does anyone else.
It doesn't matter that Michael Brown was starting college on Monday. And it doesn't matter if he was involved in a robbery on Saturday. What matters is the precise circumstances in which Officer Darren Wilson shot Brown.
Constitutionally, there are two circumstances in which a cop is allowed to shoot: if he believes his life — or the life of another innocent party — is in danger, or if a violent felon is escaping.
At the core of the Brown investigation are two competing stories: Darren Wilson, the police officer, says Brown assaulted him in his car and tried to grab his gun.
Dorian Johnson, the eyewitness and Brown's friend, says that Wilson grabbed Brown, Brown fled, Wilson shot, and then — crucially — Brown stopped and put his hands in the air, but Wilson kept shooting.
If Brown assaulted Wilson and tried to grab his gun, and Wilson believed that his life or the life of others was threatened, then Wilson could have been legally justified in using deadly force at that moment. But Brown was shot multiple times, and the final shots, according to eyewitnesses, were fired after Brown surrendered with his hands up and told Wilson that he was unarmed. If Brown surrendered, the threat was neutralized, and Wilson shot him down anyway, then the shooting was illegal whether or not Brown had previously committed a violent crime.
This case is not about whether Michael Brown was One Of The Good Ones. It's not even about whether he robbed a convenience store. The penalty for stealing cigars from a convenience store is not death. This case is about whether Wilson was legally justified in shooting Michael Brown.
It is a powerful thing to give some men and women guns and charge them with protecting the peace. It is a powerful thing because it can so easily, and so quickly, become a dangerous thing. As a society, we strictly regulate when police officers can use deadly force. The question here is whether those rules were followed, not what kind of kid Michael Brown was.
Update: Later on Friday afternoon, the Ferguson Police Department clarified that Brown was stopped because he was jaywalking, not because he was thought to have been involved in a robbery. So, as far as we know, Darren Wilson had no reason to believe Brown was involved in any kind of violent crime at all. Which makes the Ferguson PD's decision to release the robbery photos today, absent this context, look even more like an attempt to sow doubts about Brown's character.
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson on Friday said the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown was not aware that the unarmed 18-year-old was accused of robbing a convenience store just minutes before the shooting.
Jackson said that "the initial contact with Brown was not related to the robbery." Jackson also clarified that Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Brown, wasn't even responding to a call about the robbery as initially reported. Wilson instead stopped Brown because he was jaywalking.
Jackson later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that, after the initial stop, Wilson realized Brown could be the suspect of the robbery when he spotted the potentially stolen cigars in Brown's hand.*
Jackson also noted that Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown at the time of the shooting, wasn't believed by police to have been involved in the alleged robbery. (Johnson's attorney, however, says Johnson was involved.)
Earlier in the day, Brown's family accused the Ferguson Police of trying to justify the shooting by attacking Brown's character and tying him to the robbery.
Jackson said the media had asked for the robbery footage, and he was simply complying with their requests. "We've had this tape for a while," Jackson said. "We had to diligently review the information in this tape."
Jackson refused to directly answer questions as to why the robbery footage had to be released alongside the name of the officer who killed Brown.
Jackson also claimed the Ferguson Police has now released all available information related to Brown. "We've given you pretty much every bit of information we have now," Jackson said.
A separate agency, the St. Louis County Police Department, is conducting a criminal investigation into the shooting. Jackson said information about the investigation will not be released until it's completed.
*Update: Added new comments from Ferguson Police Chief Jackson, and changed the headline to more accurately reflect the new comments.
Before local police released Friday's big news about Michael Brown and the officer who shot him, they did not inform the Missouri Highway Patrol, which is in charge of the security in Ferguson, about the content of the release.
The lack of communication between the two police departments raises questions about the coordination of security in Ferguson. Given the volatility in the St. Louis suburb, law enforcement, protesters, and reporters on the ground are concerned the allegations that Brown robbed a convenience store could escalate the situation.
Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who's leading security operations in Ferguson, acknowledged the mood changed in the area after Friday's news release.
Johnson suggested he would have "a serious conversation" with local police about not giving him the information prior to the release. "I guarantee it's going to be a conversation. It's not going to be a conversation I have over the phone," Johnson said. "We do need to communicate better, and we're going to do that."
The report notes that Wilson shot and killed Brown in the course of trying to apprehend him on suspicion of that robbery.
Stills from camera pic.twitter.com/FEcmKc3oGr— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 15, 2014
Also named in the police report is Dorian Johnson, said to have been Brown's accomplice in the robbery. Johnson is also a witness to Brown's shooting and his account of events has been one of the primary pieces of evidence for police misconduct. In Johnson's version of events, needless to say, he and Brown were not perpetrators of a crime.
All of which gives rise to a mystery — why haven't the police arrested Dorian Johnson?
Regardless of whether the use of deadly force was justified as a means of apprehending a robbery suspect, on the police's account of events one of the suspects — Johnson — was very much not dead. Why not arrest him? He isn't missing. He's been doing interviews with TV stations.
Watch this video for background and context on the situation in Ferguson:
Ferguson Police say Michael Brown is the lead suspect in a robbery that took place just moments before he was shot and killed, reports the Huffington Post's Ryan Reilly.
"Brown is the primary suspect in this incident." - police report— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 15, 2014
Stills from camera pic.twitter.com/FEcmKc3oGr— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 15, 2014
Page from police report pic.twitter.com/xcz6nUKqY2— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 15, 2014
More from report pic.twitter.com/7OyD2fgrI2— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 15, 2014
CBS News later released a video of the alleged robbery:
On the morning of Friday, August 15, the Ferguson Police Department released the name of the officer involved in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown: Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran of the force with no prior disciplinary record.
Notably, the press conference where Wilson's name was announced was held at the Quik Trip convenience store that was burned on Sunday night when protests following Brown's death briefly turned violent.
The release of the officer's name has been a core demand of protesters in Ferguson since Brown was killed on Saturday, August 9. Previously, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson had said that he would not reveal the officer's identity unless ordered to do so by a judge, or until official charges were filed. Jackson cited safety concerns as the reason the name was originally withheld, claiming that threats against the officer had been made on social media.
The reason for Jackson's change of heart was not immediately clear. The chief cited "a lot of sunshine requests," but did not take questions from the press.
At the press conference, Ferguson police also distributed documents to reporters which appear to suggest that Michael Brown was the primary suspect in a strong arm robbery of a convenience store that took place immediately before he was killed. Ryan J. Reilly of the Huffington Post posted the relevant sections:
Page from police report pic.twitter.com/xcz6nUKqY2— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 15, 2014
More from report pic.twitter.com/7OyD2fgrI2— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 15, 2014
"Brown is the primary suspect in this incident." - police report— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 15, 2014
Stills from camera pic.twitter.com/FEcmKc3oGr— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 15, 2014
Police relaxed their tactics in Ferguson on Thursday evening, allowing the tone of the protests to change quite literally overnight.
The change in the police's approach came just hours after Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced the Missouri Highway Patrol would take over security in Ferguson — in response to mounting criticisms that the militarized police presence was causing the situation in the St. Louis suburb to escalate.
The result, in these two images:
Of course, this is just one night after a long, volatile week. It will likely take more than kinder, gentler protest security to heal the community's deep wounds.
St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, the man potentially heading charges against the officer who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, is not happy with Governor Jay Nixon's decision to put the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge of security in Ferguson.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Paul Hampel tweeted on a phone call with McCulloch:
#MikeMike STL County prosecutor Bob McCulloch called me. Said Nixon replacing Chief Belmar with HWP Capt Johnson was illegal, disgraceful.— paul hampel (@phampel) August 15, 2014
#MikeMike "Nixon denigrated the men and women of the County Police Department and what they've done." --McCulloch— paul hampel (@phampel) August 15, 2014
#MikeMike "I have great respect for Capt. Johnson. And I hope I am wrong but I think Nixon's action put a lot of people in danger."McCulloch— paul hampel (@phampel) August 15, 2014
For what it's worth, so far the leadership changes seem to have led to a much more peaceful atmosphere in Ferguson on Thursday, August 14.
The leadership changes, however, did not affect the criminal investigation into the shooting of Michael Brown, which is still being headed by the St. Louis County Police Department — and any charges would likely be handed out by McCulloch.
To learn more about the protests in Ferguson, read Vox's full explainer and watch the two-minute video below:
The marches in Ferguson, Missouri, are carrying on with considerably less police resistance on Thursday than on Wednesday.
Ryan Reilly at the Huffington Post noted the stark differences:
Others noticed the low numbers of police out on Thursday:
Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who's been placed in charge of security at Ferguson, even hugged and walked alongside protesters:
Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol walks along with the Ferguson march. Compare this to Wednesday. pic.twitter.com/Vtezu4MuHk— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) August 14, 2014
One protester took a selfie with St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson:
Protesters and reporters on the ground are praising the clear change in tone, brought on just a few hours after Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced the Missouri Highway Patrol would be taking over security in Ferguson.
The better atmosphere doesn't fix the militarization of police or racial disparities in Ferguson and across the country, but, for protesters, being able to march in peace is being taken as a very good start.
On Thursday evening, thousands of people attended vigils across the country to protest police brutality. And at 7:20pm, they all participated in a moment of silence to honor Michael Brown, the 18-year-old Missouri man whose death at the hands of police last weekend has shaken the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. While many of the images out of Ferguson over the past six days have been harrowing, photos from the vigils, shared on social media under the hashtag #nmos14, show people across the nation coming together in solidarity.
Sheera Frenkel, BuzzFeed's excellent Middle East correspondent, is in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the United States is launching airstrikes to help Kurdish peshmerga fighters in their life-or-death struggle to expel the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists who have been pushing into their territory, the latest crisis for Iraqi Kurds in decades of war and genocide.
But the immediacy of that crisis has apparently not prevented Iraq's Kurds from hearing about the mess in Ferguson, Missouri. One of them asked Frenkel about it. His question is so revealing that only someone thousands of miles away could ask it:
Today, an Iraqi Kurd asked me what the people of Furguson had done wrong & why the police were so angry at them. "I feel very bad for them."— Sheera Frenkel (@sheeraf) August 14, 2014
If you feel a sudden sinking feeling in your chest, that's you realizing this Iraqi Kurd's inevitable disappointment when he or she learns how America really works; that Ferguson's citizens are not being blanketed in tear gas because they erred and are being justly dispersed by the righteous American police force, as they'd assumed, but because there are deep, systemic problems in American criminal justice that have created what is widely seen as a national disgrace.
Out of all the people I have met, no group has seemed more consistently or enthusiastically pro-American than Kurds, so it's not surprising that Frenkel's contact there would assume that American police would only behave this way if the citizens of Ferguson really deserved it. But what we all know, as Americans who are familiar with our country's problems as well as its virtues, is that the truth is a lot uglier in Ferguson. Now this Iraqi Kurd knows it too. He or she, an Iraqi Kurd facing yet another existential threat from a genocidal invasion just miles away, feels sorry for them.
The residents of Ferguson, Missouri, have taken to the streets to protest the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was unarmed when he was killed by police on August 9. Demonstrations turned violent the day after Brown's shooting, with reports of looting in the area, but since then, protesters have remained largely peaceful. Nevertheless, police responded with military-grade equipment, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Vox's German Lopez explains how the response from law enforcement exacerbates long-standing tensions in this small St. Louis suburb.
Ferguson, Missouri, is 67 percent black, but only one of six council members is black and the mayor is white. So is the chief of police. This demographic discrepancy is one of the reasons the black community in the St. Louis suburb has felt misrepresented by its local government.
But how is that disparity possible? If two-thirds of the city is black, shouldn't there at least be more black council members?
The problem, MSNBC reports, is low voter turnout during local elections in March and April. "No one collects data on turnout by race in municipal elections. But the overall turnout numbers for Ferguson's mayoral and city council election are discouraging," writes MSNBC's Zachary Roth. "This year, just 12.3 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, according to numbers provided by the county. In 2013 and 2012, those figures were even lower: 11.7 percent and 8.9 percent respectively. As a rule, the lower the turnout, the more the electorate skews white and conservative."
This corroborates what Terry Jones, a political science professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis who closely follows local politics, recently told me via email. He wrote that the city's white residents "are on average older in age and have resided in Ferguson longer. As a result, I estimate the electorate participating in the April municipal elections remains majority Caucasian."
The police reaction to the protests in Ferguson, MO, underscores a basic truth about the criminal justice system in America: it's racist. As, in fact, does the broader history of protest in America. It turns out that, for decades, protests with black participants were more likely to meet with a police presence. And at events the police do show up for, they're more likely to arrest or beat protesters when at least some of the protesters are black.
These findings come from a 2011 paper coauthored by professors at Notre Dame, Stanford, and the University of Wisconsin. The professors — Christian Davenport, Sarah Soule, and David Armstrong — took a database of 15,000 American protests from 1960 to 1990 and used newspaper reports to identify which protests had at least some black protesters. After controlling for some confounding variables, they compared those protests to ones with no black protesters.
The first major finding is that police were more like to show up when black people were in the crowd. This chart shows how that looks over time:
Then, the researchers looked only at protests where police showed up, comparing policed protests with some black protesters with those where were none. Davenport, Soule, and Armstrong found that "once police are present, they are more likely to make arrests, use force and violence, and use force and violence in combination with arrests at African American protest events."
For a more thorough explanation of the paper's methodology and findings, you should definitely read The Monkey Cage's Kim Yi Dionne, who first wrote up the study. One important addendum she adds: "It's important to note that the study also shows that the effect — what the authors call 'Protesting While Black' — has varied over time. Their study suggested that the impact of 'Protesting While Black' was historically bounded to the earlier period, prior to the enactment of civil rights legislation." For more, read the whole thing.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said Thursday that the name of the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown should be released to the public.
"I would hope that the appropriate release of that name with the security around it if necessary to make sure that there's not additional acts of violence be done as expeditiously as possible," Nixon said, according to TPM. "I think it would be an important milestone here to get that out as expeditiously as possible."
Police say they are withholding the name to protect the officer's safety. Critics say not releasing the name shows the investigation isn't being carried out in a transparent manner.
To learn more about the situation in Ferguson, read Vox's explainer.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon on Thursday, August 14, said the Missouri Highway Patrol will take over security operations in Ferguson. The announcement comes in response to mounting criticism about how the heavily armed police forces have handled the protests in the St. Louis suburb.
It remains unclear how much the leadership change will alter the situation in Ferguson. The Missouri Highway Patrol has already been on the ground in Ferguson during the past few days, and Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson earlier said that the state highway patrol already makes some of the calls.
Still, the lack of police coordination certainly contributed to the rise in tensions. By appointing one agency in charge, it might be easier for police to coordinate more peaceful crowd control tactics.
"Our hope is that this operational shift will begin the process of lowering the intensity of [police-community] interactions and potential risks," Nixon said.
Nixon said the leadership changes will not affect the ongoing criminal investigation into the shooting of Michael Brown. That investigation is being handled by the criticized St. Louis County Police. Some people have questioned the objectivity of the county police's investigation.
Separately, the FBI is conducting its own investigation into whether the incident amounted to a civil rights violation.
To learn more about the situation in Ferguson, read Vox's full explainer.
UPDATE: On the afternoon of Thursday, August 14th, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon placed the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge of response to protesters. This article has been updated to reflect the change.
As the nation's attention is on the aggressive, militarized police response to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, there's a lot of clamoring for accountability. On Thursday morning, the St. Louis County Police Department, which was in charge of the response to the protests on the night of Wednesday, August 13, was pulled out of Ferguson. That afternoon, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said that the Missouri Highway Patrol would be put in charge of the response to protesters.
You can't understand the police actions in Ferguson — and the size of the change Nixon's announcement represents — without understanding this: for the first several days of protests in Ferguson, there were several different agencies on the ground. And none of them were in charge.
Prior to Thursday morning, there were at least four different police departments on the ground in Ferguson at any given time: the Ferguson police themselves, the St. Louis County police (where Ferguson is located), police from the City of St. Louis, and police from the Missouri Highway Patrol. Additionally, police forces from neighboring cities — such as Dellwood — were photographed at the scene. St. Louis County police were withdrawn on Thursday, and the head of the St. Louis city police said that his officers would not be in Ferguson on Thursday night.
At the press conference Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson held Wednesday — the first press conference since the unrest on Sunday — reporter Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times asked who was in charge of making the decision to tear-gas and shoot rubber bullets at protesters and use flashbangs. Jackson's response, at 15:56, was interesting and important:
Here's the transcript of the exchange (emphasis added):
Pearce: Who makes decision to tear gas (inaudible)?
Jackson: The commander on the scene.
Pearce: What agency is he from? Who's in charge?
Jackson: Sometimes it's highway patrol, St. Louis County, us, St. Louis City...
Pearce: So when something goes down on West Florissant (inaudible) at night, police (inaudible) from different agencies there, there's one person in charge of all of them, or (inaudible)?
Jackson: There's one incident commander each night.
Pearce: So that commander rotates, it's not the same guy.
What that means is that at least four different people, from different police departments, made the decision to tear-gas protesters: one for each night tear-gas canisters were fired (August 10, 11, 12, and 13). That meant that the problem wasn't just with the St. Louis County police, or with the Ferguson police. (Ferguson mayor Jay Knowles said on Thursday that the St. Louis County police had been in charge "tactically" since Sunday, which conflicted with Jackson's account — but raised further questions about who was really in command of what was going on.)
More importantly, it made it impossible for one police chief to be held accountable for what officers are doing in Ferguson. It wasn't clear what the relationship was between an "incident commander" who was making decisions at the protest site, and the chief of his police department. But because the public didn't even know which agency the "incident commander" was with, it was impossible to demand that that police chief restrain his officers. When Ferguson chief Jackson gave his press conference Wednesday, he was asked whether there would be tear gas used on Wednesday night. He said, "I hope not." But he honestly couldn't make any promises, because it turned out that the St. Louis County police were the ones in charge. Now, Governor Nixon has officially designated the Missouri Highway Patrol as the agency to whom the public should be directing their demands for accountability and de-escalation.
In fact, the promises Jackson did make about what police would do on Wednesday were quickly broken by the police on the scene. He said repeatedly that protesters would be allowed to continue to assemble, even after sunset (although the Ferguson police and city government had asked protesters to leave 5pm), as long as they were peaceful and weren't blocking the road for more than a brief time.
That's not what happened — guns and tactical vehicles were aimed on protesters on the sidewalk, even hours before sunset, and the confrontation between police and protesters after sunset began when police started demanding that protesters retreat 25 feet from where they'd been standing peacefully for hours. Jackson was wrong, and the contrast between his words on Wednesday afternoon and officers' actions a few hours later further eroded public trust in a police force that was already losing it rapidly. The lack of accountability in Ferguson made it impossible to rebuild the public's trust.
Jackson said Wednesday that he's been working with the Community Relations Service of the Department of Justice, so that the Ferguson Police Department can rebuild its relationship with the city's black community. "I've asked them, 'Tell me what to do," Jackson said. But his actions didn't matter at that point.
Governor Nixon did exactly what he needed to do in placing one agency in charge of the response to protesters. Until there are no longer dozens of police from multiple agencies responding to protests, the Ferguson Police Department can't fix its relationship with the community and defuse tension. Now that there is a clear agency to hold accountable, hopefully that tension will begin to be defused — and as tension is defused, it's likely police will feel they need to de-escalate their presence.
In Ferguson, Missouri, local law enforcement has been using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse largely nonviolent protesters, who have taken to the streets every night since Saturday, August 9, to protest unfair treatment by police. At least four different police departments have been involved. Two of these departments are now pulling out, and the state's governor, Jay Nixon, has said the police will deescalate the level of force. They need to: according to one expert on how to police protests, this isn't just shockingly unjust, it's also utterly incompetent police work.
Jason Fritz, an Iraq war veteran who's now an analyst focusing on policing in conflict zones, was appalled by what he saw in Ferguson, where the shooting of an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown, has sparked days of protests. "They are taking steps that are going to do nothing but exacerbate the situation," Fritz told me over the phone. "It's not any kind of policing tactic, technique, or strategy that I'm aware of. It goes against against all of the police manuals that I've studied."
In our conversation, Fritz explained why no police force that's really concerned with protecting the population and preserving the rule of law would ever do what the police in the St. Louis suburb have done.
Zack Beauchamp: You wrote that the police conduct in Ferguson isn't just immoral and unconstitutional, it's also ineffective. What do you mean by that?
Jason Fritz: In the Ferguson police's perception, they're trying to disrupt a hostile crowd. I'm not saying the people of Ferguson are hostile, just that that's how the police see it. [And when you're responding to a hostile crowd], what the police use is a phalanx system: police with their batons and their shields, like at the [World Trade Organization] protests. They become a physical presence to either block off terrain or push the hostile crowd off of the terrain.
There's a couple levels on which what the Ferguson police are doing, compared to the phalanx, is ineffective. They're not near the protestors, and they're not pushing them off the ground they want to push them off of. They're not doing what they want to do. They're standing back, using this show of force — I guess that's the best way to describe it — and it doesn't work. Obviously, the protestors are still there.
Trying to intimidate the crowds off the street, especially considering that it's a protest against police aggression — well, it's just stupid. It's going to exacerbate the problem.
ZB: Under what circumstances do police normally use things like sniper rifles loaded with rubber bullets and tear gas?
JF: Police will use rubber bullets and tear gas, but in conjunction with a phalanx. They aren't systems to be used on their own. These are supporting tactics they can use, specifically when removing people from a scene or preventing them from getting access to something.
And the sniper rifles: If there is a threat that requires a sniper, the idea that a sniper can place himself on top of a very large vehicle, in the middle of the street — that's not how snipers work. He's clearly exposing himself to fire.
What these snipers are useful for is to get rid of sources of fire with precision shooting. Just by placing themselves there, there's nothing that man is accomplishing other than intimidating the people he's pointing a sniper rifle at.
ZB: From your description, it sounds like they're taking military equipment, and using it to do utterly incompetent police work.
JF: That is exactly correct.
ZB: Where else have you seen police forces behave like this? Everyone seems shocked that this is happening in the United States, but I imagine there's got to be other places in which police forces misuse military weapons against protesters.
JF: The places where you'll see this used are the kinds of countries where they can get away with it. Countries that are known as oppressive states and there's no media to report on the situation.
We saw this, for example, in Tiananmen Square. China has an almost insignificant line between the military and the police. So China and other states like it.
Police forces usually fall into one of two categories, though there some grey situations between the two. You either protect the rule of law and the population, or you're the type of police force that's there to protect the regime. What's happening in Ferguson is what regime protection forces do, not what rule of law police do.
ZB: What normally happens when police use these kind of tactics? How does the situation in Ferguson end?
JF: If the police keep doing what they're doing, I don't see any possibility of them quieting the unrest and forcing the people off the street. Which is not something police should want here in the United States anyway.
There are some cases of police and excessive force like this in Kosovo, and all that did was bring out larger crowds the next day and bring more attention to the situation, until the police position becomes untenable and they actually have to leave the field themselves (to put in military terms).
ZB: How does the media coverage play into this effect? It seems like that has a role in this "getting more attention effect," so is that why police arrested two journalists in a McDonald's last night?
JF: Yes. I don't remember seeing anything like this here in my lifetime in the United States.
Look, if there's no one there to record it, or to watch it, then it didn't happen. If the word doesn't get out about how awful things are, then it doesn't get out. The arrests last night were a blatant run at trying to quiet this thing up.
ZB: Does there even need to be a huge police presence here? Maybe there was when, say, the QuikTrip got burned on Sunday night. But right now, these are mostly nonviolent protests.
JF: That's a very good question. I don't have the answer.
Even with the scattered reports I've heard of the occasional Molotov cocktails, or seeing firearms in the crowd, these are things police are trained to handle. There are certainly phalanx things they can do get these extremely violent people out of the crowd. But if there's just a peaceful protest, I don't see the utility of what they're doing.
If they're thinking about storming something, I get that. But that doesn't seem to be what the protestors are trying to do.
ZB: If you were put in command of the police in Ferguson today, what would you tell them to do?
JF: I would send everyone home.
Have most people go home. Keep a few people around in case there are any actual threats from actions that require law enforcement. But the best thing to do right now is to get everyone off the street. That's the best way for this to resolve itself.
That, of course, should be followed by pretty extensive retraining.
ZB: How much of the police response is that they just have these weapons? Is there some kind of enabling effect: you have these weapons and then they want to use them?
JF: I'm going to guess there must be an element of that. They have the toys, and they just want to play with them, to put it bluntly. They look like guys playing army.
Like the militia members in Eastern Ukraine, they like looking cool and looking like badasses.
ZB: Ferguson is hardly the only place in the United States with serious racial tension, nor is it the only one where the local police is seriously militarized. Have we created, by virtue of the kind of country that we are and the way that we equip our police, the conditions for this to happen again?
JF: Quite likely. There must be thousands of places like Ferguson around the country, and police with that kind of mentality. And the equipment's easier to get right now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rubber bullets are one of the tactics the police have used against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.
Rubber bullets can be dangerous and harmful. The small body of research that has looked at the injuries they cause has routinely found a high number of serious injuries and a small number of deaths.
The British Journal of Surgery published the first report on rubber bullets in 1975, shortly after the British Army introduced the new technology in Northern Ireland in 1970.
They looked at the injuries caused to 90 patients that the new rubber bullets struck. These are all people who went to seek health care services — so this does leave out those who may have been struck but did not suffer significant injury. Of the 90 patients studied, the researchers found that 40 patients required hospital admission. Seventeen of those admitted were left "with permanent disabilities or disfigurements." One person died.
"Despite the low mortality, the rubber bullet cannot be considered completely safe in its present form," the authors of that study warned. "This is chiefly a consequence of its inaccuracy [in being shot]."
Rubber bullets have changed and evolved since the 1970s, but the most recent research (which, unfortunately, is now 14 years old) doesn't suggest they have become any less dangerous.
Israeli researchers looked at injuries caused by rubber bullets during the Israeli-Arab conflict in the fall of 2000. Their study included 151 patients who had a combined 201 injuries caused by rubber bullets. The injuries appeared all over the patients' bodies, a random distribution that — as the British researchers warned in the 1970s — indicated a lack of accuracy in shooting.
Of the 151 rubber-bullet patients who were seen, 68 people had to be admitted to the hospital for treatment. Eleven of them underwent surgery that required general anesthesia. Three, two of whom were struck somewhere in the face, ultimately died as a result of their injuries.
"This type of inaccurate ammunition … makes it difficult or impossible to avoid severe injuries to vulnerable body regions such as the head, neck, and upper torso, leading to substantial mortality, morbidity, and disability," the authors of that Lancet study wrote.
The most recent research on rubber bullet injuries was published in 2010. In the journal Injury, French researchers examined six patients who were treated for rubber bullet related trauma since 2000 (rubber bullet guns are marketed to European Union citizens as self-defense weapons). The five patients lived, but all had "severe facial injuries necessitating long-term hospitalization and two-to-three step surgical treatments."
US Attorney General Eric Holder released a statement about the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Read the full statement below:
This morning, I met with President Obama to discuss the events in Ferguson, Missouri. Like the President, I extend my heartfelt condolences to the family of Michael Brown. While his death has understandably caused heartache within the community, it is clear that the scenes playing out in the streets of Ferguson over the last several nights cannot continue.
For one thing, while the vast majority of protests have been peaceful, acts of violence by members of the public cannot be condoned. Looting and willful efforts to antagonize law enforcement officers who are genuinely trying to protect the public do nothing to remember the young man who has died. Such conduct is unacceptable and must be unequivocally condemned.
By the same token, the law enforcement response to these demonstrations must seek to reduce tensions, not heighten them. Those who peacefully gather to express sympathy for the family of Michael Brown must have their rights respected at all times. And journalists must not be harassed or prevented from covering a story that needs to be told.
At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message. At my direction, Department officials have conveyed these concerns to local authorities. Also at my direction, the Department is offering – through our COPS office and Office of Justice Programs – technical assistance to local authorities in order to help conduct crowd control and maintain public safety without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force. The local authorities in Missouri have accepted this offer of assistance as of this afternoon.
Department officials from the Community Relations Service are also on the ground in Missouri to help convene law enforcement officials and civic and faith leaders to plot out steps to reduce tensions in the community. The latest such meeting was convened in Ferguson as recently as this morning. Over time, these conversations should consider the role that increased diversity in law enforcement can play in helping to build trust within communities.
All the while, the federal civil rights investigation into the shooting incident itself continues, in parallel with the local investigation into state law violations. Our investigators from the Civil Rights Division and U.S. attorney’s office in Missouri have already conducted interviews with eyewitnesses on the scene at the time of the shooting incident on Saturday. Our review will take time to conduct, but it will be thorough and fair.
Two local police departments will no longer provide support in Ferguson, Missouri — a move that comes during mounting criticisms of law enforcement's heavy-handed tactics against protesters.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) confirmed Thursday that the St. Louis County Police Department, which was in charge during Wednesday night's protests, would be removed from Ferguson.
St. Louis Public Radio reporter Rachel Lippmann confirmed the St. Louis Police Department also won't be involved with the protests on Thursday night:
(2/2) Partly b/c of events scheduled for city, but also b/c personal values have conflicted w/ support for fellow officers.— Rachel Lippmann (@rlippmann) August 14, 2014
Earlier in the day, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said he would be "reframing" the police's chain of command in the area. These announcements are, presumably, part of those changes in tactics.
For more information about the situation in Ferguson, read Vox's full explainer.
The statement from the Ferguson Police Department is calm and matter-of-fact. "We only ask that any groups wishing to assemble in prayer or in protest do so only during daylight hours in an organized and respectful manner. We further ask all those wishing to demonstrate or assemble disperse well before the evening hours to ensure the safety of the participants and the safety of the community."
It's the "only" that shocks. We only ask that the First Amendment cease to exist at sunset. You suspend your right to protest, and we'll assure your safety. And if you don't? Well, that's left unsaid.
Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union tried to produce a comprehensive report on the militarization of America's police forces. But they couldn't. "The militarization of policing in the United States has occurred with almost no public oversight," they concluded. "Not a single law enforcement agency in this investigation provided records containing all of the information that the ACLU believes is necessary to undertake a thorough examination of police militarization. Some agencies provided records that were nearly totally lacking in important information. Agencies that monitor and provide oversight over the militarization of policing are virtually nonexistent."
The people charged with protecting us are afraid of what will happen if we know what they're doing.
But the ACLU did discover something worth knowing: after aggregating the reports and data on SWAT raids they could find, they found that the militarized police operations were overwhelmingly aimed at minorities. "Overall, 42 percent of people impacted by a SWAT deployment to execute a search warrant were Black and 12 percent were Latino. This means that of the people impacted by deployments for warrants, at least 54 percent were minorities." (For comparison, 72 percent of Americans identified as white in 2010.) The feel of the police presence is much more militarized in minority communities than white communities.
There was a time when crime drove American politics. It was a top issue in 1984, and 1988, and 1992. The infamous Willie Horton ad was about race, but it was also about crime. The crack epidemic was ongoing, and murders were rising, and people were afraid. Washington's answer was cops, prisons and harsher sentencing rules.
Today, the crack epidemic is over, the murder rate has fallen, and Americans feel much safer. But cops, prisons and sentencing rules are coming back as an issue. This time, though, they're not seen as the answer. This time they're the problem.
There is no reason to be subtle on this point: the American criminal justice system is racist.
White and black people are similarly likely to use drugs, but black people are 3.6 times likelier to be arrested for drug use than white people — a disparity that has grown much worse in recent years. That's because America's criminal justice system is racist.
Until 2010, triggering the mandatory 5-year sentence for cocaine, which is used more often in the white community, required possession of 100 times as much of the drug as for crack, which is used more heavily in the black community. After the 2010 reforms, the disparity was brought down to a (still huge) 18:1. That's because America's criminal justice system is racist.
Prison sentences for black men tend to be almost 20 percent longer than prison sentences for white men who commit similar crimes. That gap actually widened after 2005, when the Supreme Court gave judges more control over sentencing. That's because the criminal justice system is racist.
The result is that more than 60 percent of the people in prison are minorities. The Sentencing Project estimates that among black males in their 30s, more than one in 10 is in prison on any given day. That's because our criminal justice system is racist.
New York's stop-and-frisk program gave police the power to stop people on the street for essentially no reason. More than 80 percent of those stopped were black or Latino (and 88 percent of those stopped were not charged with any crime). That's because our criminal justice system is racist.
African Americans are often hugely underrepresented on police forces. In Ferguson, MO, for instance, the city is 67 percent black, but just three of its 53 police officers are. Incidents of excessive force are commonplace, and increasingly, there's a list of young black men who have died for no other reason than that they ran into a police officer at the wrong time and in the wrong way. The result, as UCLA's Darnell Hunt says, is that "there's a standoff attitude between police and the communities."
Something very dangerous has happened here: we have let the people and the system that's supposed to protect our communities become a threat to some of them. This is not tenable in a democracy; you cannot have the men and women who carry guns be seen as enemies by so many of the people whose taxes pay their salaries.
We are again entering a period in American politics where the criminal justice is a central issue. But this time, cops and prisons and sentencing laws aren't the answer. They're being seen as the problem. And politicians on both sides of the aisle recognize it.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, said in a statement that "we need to de-militarize this situation — this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution."
In a column for Time magazine, Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, wrote, "given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them."
Prominent politicians ranging from Rand Paul to Paul Ryan to Cory Booker to Dick Durbin to Mike Lee to Barack Obama have started putting forward reforms to the nation's sentencing laws. "When people are in prison, their skills and social networks deteriorate," wrote Ryan in his recent poverty report. "And when they get out, certain laws and business practices make it even harder for them to find a job. In short, having a prison record makes it very difficult to move up the economic ladder. Minority men are much more likely to serve time and therefore feel the weight of these effects."
A lot has gone wrong in our criminal justice system. It's time to fix it.
Norman Stamper spent 34 years as a cop, including as the chief of police for Seattle, a job he left one year after the city's police drew international attention for their heavy-handed response to 1999 anti-WTO protests. Now he speaks and writes often about police issues, including the militarization of American police forces, which believes was one of the causes of Seattle's 1999 violence — and now is a major contributor to the ongoing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Stamper is also on the advisory board of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which advocates for improvements in drug policy.
I spoke with Stamper about the dangerous implications of America's police militarization, what's happening Ferguson, and more.
Amanda Taub: I was hoping to find out a little bit more about your reflections on the police response that was used in Seattle around the 1999 WTO protests, and how you think those kind of insights could apply to what's happening in Ferguson.
Norman Stamper: What happened in Seattle in 1999 was a police overreaction, which I presided over. It was the worst mistake of my career. We used chemical agents, a euphemism for tear gas, against nonviolent and essentially nonthreatening protesters. The natural consequence of which are that we were the catalyst for heightened tension and conflict rather than peacekeepers, or for that matter even peacemakers. It's a lesson, unfortunately, that American law enforcement in general has not learned.
AT: What do you think a preferable course would have been in Seattle, and how would those lessons apply to Ferguson?
NS: From a distance, and without having interviewed anyone in Ferguson or talked with anyone on it, just relying on media reports, I would have to characterize the police response as an overreaction. Had you set out to make matters worse, you couldn't have done a better job.
I'm just very, very disappointed and troubled that lessons that we learned in Seattle have not been embraced by American law enforcement in general, by these police departments that are facing mistrust and distrust in their communities in particular. If anything, the police in America belong to the people, not the other way around. As such, they have a responsibility to forge what I would call an authentic partnership with the community where they reject unilateral decision-making. One partner in a partnership just simply does not make unilateral or arbitrary decisions.
Now there's an exception to that. The exception is where you have an active shooter, where you have a barricaded suspect, where the situation really does call for the military-like response. Those are situations where you don't hold a seminar. You don't do telephonic polling, you take action, and it had better be decisive action or somebody's likely to get hurt or killed. There are those situations that come up in police work. They are far less frequent in occurrence than one would imagine.
Most times you have the luxury of time, but I fear that what's happened over the course of the last 10, 15 years, certainly with the advent of the drug war 40-plus years ago, and then in the aftermath of September 11, we have the police taking, increasingly, a military response to a wide variety of situations, and making matters much worse in the process.
AT: Are there specific things that you've seen police in Ferguson do that you think would be escalating the situation rather than defusing it?
NS: Yes. There's a real place for dogs in police work, but it is not in the context of a nonviolent protest. In fact, using dogs for crowd control is operationally, substantively, and from an image point-of-view just about the worst thing you can do.
We should have learned that lesson as an institution back in the ‘60s in this country. When [Birmingham, Alabama, public safety commissioner] Bull Conner unleashed his police dogs on nonviolent civil rights demonstrators, he was essentially saying to those peacefully protesting Americans, "You are the enemy."
Tracking suspects, looking for a missing juvenile, occasionally dealing with a violent suspect, it really does make sense, but it does not make sense at all under these circumstances [in Ferguson]. It's a throwback to an earlier era, and it's a real setback, I think, not just for the image of policing, but for those who are generally committed to forging constructive relationships with the communities that are served by law enforcement.
AT: Are there other tactics that you think were a mistake?
NS: I'm simply not close enough to it. All of my impressions are just that — they are impressions drawn from what I've read and heard. Other than images of nonviolent protesters with dogs straining at their leashes, and attempting to control a crowd, that's been my image of what I've seen.
I would also say that if you're not collaborating with the community in advance of these situations, if you're not forging joint policy-making and decision-making, then you're essentially distancing yourself from the community. You’re isolating yourself from the community when you need to be joining with that community and carving out guidelines or rules of constructive engagement, rather than escalating the potential for and the reality of violence in that relationship.
AT: One thing that has surprised me, looking at some of these images, is what seems to be a really widespread use of rifles. That police are not just out in force with rifles kind of hanging at their side, but that they're actually holding them and pointing them at people.
NS: More likely than not, what you're looking at are the so-called rubber bullets that are fired from what appear to be military rifles. You may be looking at that beanbag technology.
I think it's so important to hold those kinds of weapons in reserve, and use them or show them only when you're dealing with a violent confrontation. Keeping the peace at a demonstration essentially means having police officers in standard everyday uniforms not military garb.
It means doing everything they can to demonstrate the de-escalation tactics and techniques, and not allowing themselves to get hooked emotionally. That requires not just sound policies and procedures and excellent training and supervision, it requires individual maturity on the part of every police officer.
It requires self-confidence — maybe even a dose of courage — to not overreact, but police officers who view themselves as in opposition to their communities have a tendency to view the community as the enemy. In the process they become an occupational force where they are in charge — in the name of control, in the name of public safety, taking actions that actually undermine legitimate control, is foolhardy at best.
AT: Can you talk a little bit about some of the de-escalation tactics that can be used for crowd control when the situation is not yet violent?
NS: First order of business is to make sure that you know, as a law enforcement agency, what your purpose is, and that is to de-escalate. In other words, your mission is not to provoke, it is to de-escalate. It is to ease tension, and if everyone knows that that's the mission that's a huge step forward — a huge advancement, frankly, over where we are in many law enforcement agencies.
It starts with that: what is our purpose? How do we want to be perceived, how do we want to look, and how do we want to act? Everybody within the police department needs to be singing from that same sheet of music, from the chief to the cop on the beat.
Then you want to be very sensitive to how you look. We were described as looking like ninja warriors in Seattle during the WTO [protests]. Now, I'm all for providing protective gear for police officers, and providing basic safety equipment to police officers, if the situation dictates it — using that safety gear. But we tried it out well in advance of what I consider to be a legitimate threat. Now the vast majority of demonstrators were nonviolent and nonthreatening.
That does not mean we didn't have individuals, anarchists by definition, engaged in tactics that were intended to be provocative, because certainly we saw that. If you've got policies and procedures and training and supervision, and individual self-discipline, then you've got the means to isolate that behavior and go after it.
There are many who say we were simply overrun in Seattle, that we didn't have nearly enough police officers on the street during WTO. There's a case to be made for that. I personally believe that's true, but we did overreact. Putting police officers out there in so-called soft uniform or their everyday working uniform is a huge step in the right direction towards de-escalation.
If they're out there in military gear from the beginning that's an act of provocation. We just simply need to use defusing techniques: they are listening, listening, listening. They are speaking softly, not screaming or shrieking or acting out of control.
When cops, just like other human beings, are frightened — and sometimes they are! — there's a tendency to act impulsively. Which is to say: to do exactly the opposite of what they need to be doing.
That's a function of training. That's on individual cops to be sure, but it's also on the organization itself. You should ask, have you trained your officers? Have you helped them develop psychological resilience and the kind of emotional hardiness that is necessary to keep cool and calm even in the face of provocation?
Good cops do know what to do if they are physically threatened, or other innocent citizens are physically threatened. They have a responsibility to meet physical force with force, but not to overreact in anticipation. In a false anticipation of a physical confrontation, they can actually provoke the confrontation. Then they've made a huge mistake strategically and tactically, and one that costs them the trust and support and respect of the community.
Good police officers understand that they need to be hearing what is actually being said, listening actively to the concerns the grievances of the community, paraphrasing it and feeding it back, and saying okay, now what can we do jointly to address these problems? It's a function of collaboration. It's a function of a specific set of skills, and a body of knowledge, and a set of defusing or de-escalation techniques. Good police academies teach it, and they reinforce it constantly.
This is what we need to be doing on a daily basis within law enforcement. It's reasonable to ask where is supervision both in reinforcement of those principles of de-escalation, and reinforcement and enforcement. Holding people accountable for escalating tension is a vital supervisory responsibility. Unfortunately, many supervisors are not trained in that, and the culture tends to reward action. The culture tends to reward decisiveness, and, dare I say, a macho tendency that is so counterproductive. It doesn't mean being soft. It doesn't mean being touchy feely, what it does mean is being sensitive to the situation you're facing, and behaving as a mature and responsible and dignified law enforcement officer.
AT: One of the things that I've been reporting is how much heavy military equipment is being distributed to police departments from the federal government, through the 1033 program and other similar programs, and there doesn't seem to be any accompanying training or oversight that comes with that. I'm trying to get a sense of how the training priorities would need to be for that equipment to be used safely, and whether that's within the capability of small police departments.
NS: Well the first order of business is to ask whether there is a purpose, a domestic law enforcement purpose, for much of that equipment. Often times the answer, if we're going to ask and answer that question honestly, is no. There simply is not. There is a time and a place for military grade equipment in police work.
I responded to the McDonald's massacre in 1984 as a chief officer in San Diego. Twenty people shot and killed, and the shooter still firing on his fellow citizens and killing children and women and men seemingly at will. Now, had we had an armored personnel carrier rather than a slot sharpshooter many, many yards away, we could have driven that armored vehicle up to, and maybe through the door of the McDonald's, and taken James Huberty out in a way that would have reduced the carnage. That simply didn't happen, because we didn't have that equipment. We eventually did use a sniper who took him out, but maybe we could have saved lives had we had that equipment.
San Diego's a big urban police department. A strong case can be made for having that equipment, for having specialty trained SWAT officers, and for ensuring that they're carefully selected, that they are thoroughly trained, and retrained routinely. When we start parceling out that kind of equipment to small rural law enforcement agencies with no training, with no maintenance responsibility, we're adding to the culpability of at least two if not three levels of government. That would be the feds for doing it in the first place, and the local jurisdictions for receiving it without the concurrent or concomitance training and policies and procedures and inspections and maintenance schedules and the like.
The one thing I would say is to reserve SWAT, reserve that equipment and those tactics for active shooter cases, barricaded suspects, armed and dangerous barricaded suspects with hostages. Do not employ those tactics, that equipment on routine drug raids or warrants service, or any other situation where you don't have what I would consider to be inherently dangerous circumstances.
AT: Would you include crowd control as an inherently dangerous circumstance?
NS: I would not. How often do we hear of political, social upheaval, the demonstrations that accompany the questioning and the concerns about police behavior, that have individuals who are armed within the crowd? If you don't have that, there is no justification I think for the kind of equipment that we're talking about.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Any other week, Let's Be Cops would have been just another movie being released. The umpteenth take on the buddy cop formula, greeted by poor reviews. But this week, the timing of Let's Be Cops's release yesterday seemed terrible.
It's not just that Let's Be Cops has that title on a week when events in Ferguson, Missouri, bring to mind not low-level police officers trying to bring down petty criminals but, instead, officers armed with military-grade weaponry confronting protesters (or, worse, the unknown officer who sparked the incident by killing the unarmed Michael Brown). It's that the whole release strategy behind the modern movie machine involves blanketing the world with marketing, which results in the following bit of awful incongruity on Twitter last night, as pointed out by my friend and former A.V. Club colleague Erik Adams.
There probably wasn't much 20th Century Fox could do about the film's release. The protests (and overcompensating response to said protests) didn't begin in earnest until Monday night, only a little over 24 hours before Let's Be Cops began midnight screenings. And early box office returns suggest the movie will do fine, if not be a massive hit. It's a comedy, smartly released at a time when there aren't a lot of comedies, and Fox could probably scale back its marketing efforts (which it will almost certainly have to after last night's events in Ferguson) and not lose too many ticket sales because of that counterprogramming.
But the terrible timing of Let's Be Cops points to a larger problem in the ways Hollywood tells stories about the police: though the film and television industries continue to tell stories about cops by the boatload, those stories have done a horrible job of evolving to reflect the ways the militarization of police forces can create rifts between officers and the people they're ostensibly protecting.
To be sure, art usually reflects life, and it can take time for these sorts of things to filter their way into the public consciousness. The horrifying night-vision images of Wednesday's confrontation in Ferguson will eventually be reflected somewhere in something Hollywood produces, because they have been so widely spread and commented upon.
But movies and TV shows about police officers have long been one of the foremost ways Americans process and reflect upon their feelings about both crime and efforts to stop that crime. We might have more stories about cops than ever, but they seem largely unable or unwilling to think about the issues that have reached a crisis point in Ferguson.
It seems silly today, but at the time of its debut in 1968, The Mod Squad was widely acclaimed for helping make sense out of things like the era's youth culture and the struggles of both women and people of color to find equality in the workplace. Growing anxiety about violent crime in the ‘70s found its expression in films like The French Connection and Dirty Harry, while the 1980s' Hill Street Blues is one of the smartest, most compassionate TV shows ever made and an earnest plea for understanding and empathy about the plight of American inner cities that also managed to become a top 30 Nielsen hit.
Consider, also, the wave of buddy cop movies that arrived in the ‘80s, many of which had surprisingly thoughtful attempts to deal with issues like racial relations (48 Hours) or mental health (Lethal Weapon) at or near their cores. Those attempts can seem cloying now, but at the time, they were revolutionary. Even ersatz ‘90s cop show The X-Files reflected that era's growing suspicion of government action, to say nothing of how Law & Order directly confronted the issues of the day.
If there's a demarcating line here, it's likely the debut of CSI in 2000. The CBS series was too big to ignore, meaning that essentially every cop show on TV had to grapple with it in some way. Most shows chose to just copy it. Oddly enough, CSI is, at least metaphorically, about the growing reliance of police departments on advanced technology that cuts said departments off from the people they're meant to protect. Hill Street and its descendants built out whole universes around their central police precincts. In contrast, CSI's Las Vegas was divided between the police officers and their cool toys and a city full of cardboard cutouts who existed mostly to kill or be killed.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach. Early CSI was a lot of fun, and even in its dotage, the show is capable of a handful of solid episodes per season. There have always been straightforward "cops vs. robbers" stories, and they can be good fun. But what happens when this is the only story viewers get told?
The CSI approach rapidly became essentially the only approach TV had for telling stories about police officers, while movies about cops were increasingly relegated to the sidelines in favor of big budget extravaganzas. And when the primary story being told about police officers is that all of their new toys are fantastic and they're living in a crime wave straight out of viewers' worst nightmares, it sends subconscious assumptions that are easy to filter out into reality.
There are a couple of major exceptions to the CSI rule, but neither has proved as fruitful as that show in terms of shifting the TV landscape. The Wire is one of the greatest television shows ever made, a beautiful, bruising, realistic look at all sides of the war on drugs and the death of the American city that has immense empathy for every character within its universe. But it's also sui generis, and therefore much too hard for other shows to copy (to say nothing of how it was never a massive hit and teetered on the brink of cancellation for its entire run).
More successful in this regard was The Shield, which looked at the uneasy relationship Americans often have with cops who break the law but, nonetheless, get results — in both fiction and reality. In some ways, that show was a very delayed response to the Rodney King beating and the culture of corruption within the Los Angeles Police Department that was made glaringly public after that incident. But in other ways, it was also (inadvertently) the perfect post-September 11 show, about how easy it is to cross moral lines when working to fight crime. If Hollywood is ever going to deal with the militarization of police forces, The Shield's creator, Shawn Ryan, who has also done several solid military series (The Unit, Last Resort), would be a good choice to consider those questions.
But if you're looking for the TV show or movie that directly deals with these issues, it doesn't exist yet. Hollywood can occasionally be a little slow at dealing with social issues, but this creeping militarization has been going on for a while, with little on TV to reflect either the simple fact of its existence or the moral and ethical issues that go along with it. Indeed, the upcoming CBS show Battle Creek is a series that feels unstuck in time, dealing as it does with an underfunded police department that can't get its hands on good equipment. Real world police departments are getting more and more advanced technology; fictional ones are devolving.
To some degree, that has something to do with the fact that stories about police officers usually have police officers as protagonists. It's much easier to level the playing field between protagonist and antagonist when the hero is a beat cop up against a serial killer than it is when the hero can ride a tank into battle with civilians. Good storytelling demands dramatic stakes, and tanks tend to skew that equation.
Consider, for instance, the Fox summer series Gang Related, which did deal with a militarized police department, but set it up against a gang that also possessed such technology, creating a show where open war essentially raged on the streets of Los Angeles. That might be fun for an action show, but it doesn't reflect the images from Ferguson, where the conflict was decidedly imbalanced.
We need more TV shows and movies that reflect the world we're seeing in news reports from Ferguson, and we need ones that do so directly. Fiction helps us process and make sense of the world, and there's room in the images out of Ferguson (and so many other cities) for an earnest and nuanced consideration of what happens when police officers are given military-grade weaponry. That story could be told from the point-of-view of cops or ordinary citizens or even criminals. But it's there to be told, and it too rarely is — certainly not in projects like Let's Be Cops.
And if nothing else, it's time for the CSI template to gain that nuance. There are times when technology is helpful in solving crime (especially in a lab setting), but it's not a de facto good for police departments around the country. To suggest otherwise does a disservice to viewers and storytelling.
President Barack Obama will speak about the situation in Ferguson and give an update on developments in Iraq. Watch his statements here:
Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery who was arrested and detained last night by Ferguson police, had some thoughts for MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough who seemed to be blaming the victim of heavy-handed police tactics. Lowery suggested Scarborough might want to "get out of 30 Rock where he's sitting, sipping his Starbucks smugly" and check out the situation on the ground.
Lowery spoke passionately not just about his personal experience, but about things he'd witnessed "mothers, daughters crying ... having a 19 year-old boy crying and having to pull his 21 year-old sister out of a cloud of tear gas and thinking he's going to die.
Watch the whole thing:
Confrontations between protestors and heavily armed police over the past several days in Ferguson, Missouri have left many observers wondering how suburban police departments come to have so much military-style equipment in the first place. The answer, roughly, is that in the 1990s, when federal, state and local governments were scrambling to win the "war on drugs" and fight high crime rates, the federal government started helping local police officers get military equipment.
That's still going on — and with the winding down of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars under the Obama administration, the Department of Defense finds itself with a lot of excess military equipment on its hands.
Put these two trends together, and you get a lot of local police departments and sheriff's offices asking for, and getting, armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers, and M-16s.
A story in the New York Times looks into where this equipment ends up — and how locals feel about equipment that was developed for use in Iraq and Afghanistan ending up on their streets.
"It just seems like ramping up a police department for a problem we don't have," said Shay Korittnig, a father of two who spoke against getting the armored truck at a recent public meeting in Neenah(, WI). "This is not what I was looking for when I moved here, that my children would view their local police officer as an M-16-toting, SWAT-apparel-wearing officer."
The New York Times article reports that the Pentagon has sent local police departments "tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft" over the past several years. But that's actually just scratching the surface of the military equipment that local police departments can get.
Kara Dansky, an ACLU scholar who studies police militarization, says that there are three different federal programs that help local cops get military gear. The one covered by the Times is a Department of Defense program that directly transfers equipment to local law enforcement agencies. But there are two federal grant programs — one run through the Department of Justice, and one run through the Department of Homeland Security — that give local cops money to purchase their own equipment. And much of the equipment they buy is also military-style.
In the Times article, law enforcement officers make the case that criminals and terrorists are always innovating, so police need to innovate too. "I wish it were the way it was when I was a kid," says the police chief of Neenah, a small town in Wisconsin. (Neenah has a 9-foot-tall armored truck that came from the federal government; it hasn't had a murder in five years.) Some officers freely admit they're talking about worst-case scenarios that "may not ever happen," but say that their communities understand the need to be prepared for a worst-case scenario just in case.
But Dansky, and others, point out that isn't what actually happens once police get military gear. Instead, when they have something, they feel the need to use it — one of the main programs through which police departments get military equipment formally requires use within one year, and even in the absence of such requirements the psychological and institutional pressure to use new toys is hard to resist. This has already happened with the proliferation of SWAT teams around the country, also supported by federal funds and training. When more police departments get SWAT teams, they conduct more SWAT raids. And as they conduct more SWAT raids, Dansky says, "increasingly they are being used for everyday warrant service," according to surveys of police.
Historically, Dansky says, "The militarization of policing has occurred almost in the absence of public oversight." Right now, there are some public records for the program the Times covers that gives cops equipment, but very little for the programs that give cops money to buy equipment.
But the Times article shows the public might be paying more attention: residents in Neenah are opposed to their department's use of military gear, and a county in Maine managed to persuade its sheriff to withdraw a request for a "mine-resistant vehicle." If residents are paying more attention to what equipment ends up in the hands of local cops, they might be able to provide the oversight that isn't possible at the federal level.
The anger behind Ferguson's response to the shooting of Michael Brown is not new. The killing of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of a police officer was the final straw in a stack of racial tensions that have been building up for years. Although there was some looting the day after Brown's death, the protests have been characterized by peaceful demonstrations and tense standoffs between angry, but nonviolent, protestors and heavily armed police.
Darnell Hunt, UCLA professor and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, has been studying these types of events for decades — going back to the Los Angeles riots of 1992, which followed the videotaped beating of Rodney King. I spoke with Hunt by phone on Wednesday to get his take on what's now happening in Ferguson.
German Lopez: What leads to events like the protests in Ferguson?
Darnell Hunt: An event like Michael Brown's shooting does trigger it, but it's typically the pressure or tension that has been building up for years prior to the event that is the ultimate cause. There's usually a range of different factors that are involved that motivate people to essentially take to the streets.
My understanding of Ferguson is that there have been longstanding issues with the police, which is pretty typical of largely minority communities and their relationships with police forces. African Americans in particular are pretty severely underrepresented among police officers, so there's a standoff attitude between police and the communities.
There's other factors as well. This tragic incident comes on the heels of what happened with Trayvon Martin and some of the other high-profile cases in recent years. These cases really drove home the point for people in these communities that black life is not considered as sacred as it should be.
So people are taking to the streets to protest the way this all happened.
In some ways, it parallels what led to the Los Angeles riots. The Rodney King beating and the verdict that exonerated the officers for the most part triggered it, but broader factors played a role.
GL: If you look at the past year, there's a lot of news coverage about racial tensions between the criminal justice system and minority communities. Do you think the buildup of these cases in our collective consciousness is one of the causes of protests?
The most obvious and immediate cause was what happened with Michael Brown. But prior to that, you have all these other events going on that create this widespread awareness that there are injustices that are aimed particularly at African American male youth.
If you think about the incidents in Florida — not just Trayvon Martin, but incidents like the killing of teenager Jordan Davis as well — they didn't fault the police directly, but they represent this whole idea that black male youth constantly represent a threat to police and deadly force can be used to keep them in check, even if they're unarmed.
The events in Missouri speak to that. All these cases contributed to the buildup of tensions. The shooting of Michael Brown was the final straw for people in Ferguson.
GL: We seem to hear more and more about these sorts of incidents. Why do you think that is? Is it increased media awareness, or are they happening more often?
DH: It's hard to say definitively.
Rewinding back 20-plus years, what was significant about the Rodney King case is it happened at the beginning of the video camera era in which the typical person might have a video camera and capture what was happening. What happened to Rodney King wasn't unusual — in the sense that people in black communities have been complaining for years about police profiling and brutality. What was significant about Rodney King is it was captured on video, and the whole world saw it. Most people who saw the videotape assumed that the officers were going to be found guilty of something.
That was what was new about it: the video was available, a local TV station picked it up, and it went viral. In that sense, media coverage and the availability of images showing what's happened definitely plays a role. It convinces people it actually happened, as opposed to having to wonder whether personal accounts of what happened are accurate.
Whether or not we could argue that what's happening lately is more an artifact of the media being engaged with this topic or theme, I'm not sure. I think there is something happening socially as it relates to black male youth and the way they've been vilified over the past few decades through the war on drugs and war on crime. There's a real sense they're seen as the prototypical threat that needs to be contained. That's real, not just a product of media coverage.
But when you combine those trends with more availability of media and news through the internet, you have the perfect storm. People are acutely aware of what's happening, and every injustice becomes another block in this edifice of understanding what's so wrong in America as it relates to race.
GL: With all those factors building up, do you think people are reaching a boiling point when it comes to racial disparities in the criminal justice system?
DH: I think people are getting fed up. In a place like Ferguson, it hit close to home. It was one of their own. It was the local police, which had issues for years.
Who knows how it will this all play out? There haven't yet been the same kinds of protests in other parts of the country that you see around St. Louis.
That said, the Trayvon Martin incident led to protests around the country. Not only was this something that affected people across the country, but other people realized that the fate of Trayvon was possibly the fate of their own sons.
I think most people around the country — African Americans in particular — empathize with the people of Ferguson and the family of Michael Brown. They understand this is something that all black people have to fear — being profiled and possibly killed in a very unjust way.
GL: Do you think these events will lead to a new movement across the country?
DH: It's hard to say whether this is a continuation of growing resentment or if this a different phase. We have a black president who himself has articulated what these events show about where we are as a nation, and he says it's gotten better.
But in some ways I would argue things are getting worse, because the disparities continue and some have gotten worse since the Great Recession.
The racial disparities in incarceration are still huge. I know the Obama administration reduced disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentencing to level the playing field a little bit in terms of incarceration.
But the disparities are still real and huge.
GL: Do you think one of the problems is that even though Americans recognize all these issues, not much happens to fix them?
DH: That's a huge part of it. What will ultimately shape the way this unfolds is what the response will be to the protests and the incident. Will justice be served? Will real attempts be made to alter the relationship between the police and the community?
Ultimately, that's what happened in Los Angeles. We're far from a perfect relationship between LAPD and local communities. But surveys from right before the 20th anniversary of the LA riots showed that police-community relationships have improved. Most people in Los Angeles think LAPD is doing a better job. Black people tend to be the least trusting, but their level of trust is higher than it was 20 years ago.
That's due to a lot of turmoil the LAPD went through. They went through a handful of police chiefs. They had changes in the police commission. They tried to move more toward community policing models.
Again, the LAPD is not perfect; there's still issues — the Christopher Dorner case brought up some of those issues — but it's better than it was. For the most part, you don't hear police chiefs saying things like Daryl Gates did when he was chief during the Rodney King beating, basically vilifying black communities.
The same kind of changes have to happen in Ferguson as well for there to be any real healing.
GL: Do you think economic factors have played a role as well?
DH: Absolutely. The economic disparities are huge. If you look at who was affected by the recession, minorities were hit particularly hard. It contributes to the sense that the system is stacked against minorities.
GL: It's easy for some people to see some of the bad events in these protests, like the looting of a convenience store, and blame the protests on immoral behavior. Do you think that ignores the history behind these issues?
Darnell Hunt: Yes.
President George H.W. Bush called the Los Angeles riots "the brutality of a mob, pure and simple." That minimized the role the economy and the government played in the crisis. It was taken as a slap in the face by most people here in Los Angeles who felt passionately about the injustice of the day.
That kind of response just fans the fires. It doesn't extend the olive branch to those in the community who feel alienated and disaffected. You have to go beyond the symptoms and look at the causes, and the causes run quite deep.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I caught this chyron from CNN this morning at my local gym. Following reporters on the ground and local accounts of last night's events, that's certainly not what I saw. We had cops pointing guns at unarmed civilians, reporters arrested without charges, tear gas, and clueless leadership in a community suffering from longstanding tensions between police and African-American residents.
Anyone familiar with the history of race and policing in the United States had to suspect from the beginning that the shooting of Michael Brown was not just a tragedy, but a crime. Yet presumption of innocence prevails and sober minds know both the need to wait for an investigation and the reality that we may never really know what happened that fateful Saturday in Ferguson, Missouri. But watching events unfold Wednesday night in the St. Louis suburb, there can be no doubt that what happened on August 13 was an outrage.
The local authorities clearly have no idea what they're doing, and higher powers from the state or federal government need to intervene before things get even worse.
The arrest of two reporters, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post, with whom many of us in Washington, DC, are acquainted was neither the beginning nor the most important part of the outrage, but it drives home in a visceral way the extent to which the situation is being monumentally mishandled.
I counted 70+ SWAT officers. Guns trained on crowds. Insanity. pic.twitter.com/stev2G6v4b— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 13, 2014
Police officers, for some unfathomable reason, were pointing guns at unarmed civilians at twilight.
Crowd control is a normal complement to any modern protest. And as I remember well from the late-Giuliani days in New York, crowd control sometimes gets heavy-handed when relationships between the police and the community are strained. But you do crowd control with horses, batons, and shields, not rifles. You point guns at dangerous, violent criminals, not people out for a march.
A number of wags have gotten mileage over the past few days out of joking that it's hard to tell if you're looking at photos of Missouri or Baghdad. But military veterans say the display of force from the cops last night went beyond any sound wartime practice.
I don't know how it was in IRQ and AFG, but in Bosnia we had less firepower while on patrol than the cops in #Ferguson— Dan Bramos (@CaptainAwwsum) August 14, 2014
Of course cops, like soldiers, must be prepared to use serious weapons from time to time. But there was no rioting last night in Ferguson. No looting. And it's difficult to imagine any scenario that would call for police officers to be dressed in the kind of military-style camo fatigues that are visible in many pictures from last night.
Lowery and Reilly were released soon after being detained, and the Ferguson police chief told Matt Pearce from the LA Times that the arrestor was "probably somebody who didn't know better."
That sounds about right. There were an awful lot of somebodies who didn't know better out on the streets of Ferguson last night wielding an awful lot of deadly equipment. Quite a few people have been injured over the past few days by rubber bullets and rough handling (although in a Wednesday press conference, a police spokesperson insisted that no one had been injured during the protests).
Wednesday night's outing ended for many protestors in a cloud of tear gas. In my experience, these "nonviolent" crowd-control tactics are a good deal more painful than people who've never been at the receiving end appreciate. There's no real reason they should be inflicted on demonstrators who weren't hurting anyone or even damaging property. We are lucky, to be honest, that nobody's been killed yet. But somebody who does know better needs to take charge. And soon.
The state's governor, Democrat Jay Nixon, spent the early evening tweeting about an education policy dispute in the state legislature, and was MIA on the issue at hand as events unfolded.
A bit after midnight local time he finally released a tepid statement, saying "I ask that members of the community demonstrate patience and calm while the investigation continues, and I urge law enforcement agencies to keep the peace and respect the rights of residents and the press during this difficult time."
But it is clear at this point that local officials in the town of Ferguson and St. Louis County don't know what they are doing. Of course people will not be calm while police officers charged with protecting them trample their rights.
The governor needs to either step in and ensure — not urge — that law enforcement do its job properly, or else to appeal to the federal government to come in and take charge. Obama and his team are, with good reason, reluctant to see the president involved in highly racialized controversies. But what happened last night on the streets of Missouri was a national disgrace.
Shortly after midnight in the Central time zone, Missouri's Democratic governor Jay Nixon released the following statement on the events in Ferguson, breaking the near-silence from his office over the last few days.
The statement reads:
"The worsening situation in Ferguson is deeply troubling, and does not represent who we are as Missourians or as Americans. While we all respect the solemn responsibility of our law enforcement officers to protect the public, we must also safeguard the rights of Missourians to peaceably assemble and the rights of the press to report on matters of public concern.
"I have been closely monitoring the situation and will continue to be in communication with local leaders, and I will be in north St. Louis County tomorrow. As Governor, I am committed to ensuring the pain of last weekend's tragedy does not continue to be compounded by this ongoing crisis. Once again, I ask that members of the community demonstrate patience and calm while the investigation continues, and I urge law enforcement agencies to keep the peace and respect the rights of residents and the press during this difficult time."
Nixon's Twitter account had announced the governor's visit to the Ferguson area earlier in the evening.
Here is a sentence that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has ever followed even a little news out of the Middle East:
Journalists from the Qatari news outlet Al Jazeera were attacked by state security forces today and blanketed in tear gas, as they attempted to film an ongoing protest; this is the latest in a string of attacks on journalists by security forces.
Now see if you can guess the country. It's not Egypt. Not Tunisia.
Nope: this happened, exactly as described, in the United States of America on Wednesday night, in the Missouri town of Ferguson. Here is the video of Al Jazeera America journalists in Ferguson being clearly targeted with tear gas by Ferguson police (apologies for the poor quality):
It began as a joke to compare what's happening in Ferguson with the authoritarian crackdowns in Middle East dictatorships, but the parallels have ceased to become a joke. Also on Wednesday night, police arrested a Washington Post reporter named Wesley Lowery — he was the second Post reporter this year to be arrested for reporting; the first was Tehran Bureau Chief Jason Rezaian. The situation in Ferguson is simply out of control.
The hands-up gesture, which has become a powerful symbol in the Ferguson, Missouri, protests, is spreading beyond the Midwest. Students at Howard University in Washington, DC, are using it to show solidarity with protesters in Ferguson:
Here are the cops in Ferguson ordering the crowd to cease protesting, "if you continue to do so, it will subject you to arrest:
Police apparently informed the crowd that their assembly was "no longer peaceful" before using tear gas to disperse demonstrators.
In a matter of seconds police set off tear gas declares this is no longer a peaceful protest pic.twitter.com/sCuy3PXHCg— Conetta (@BmoreConetta) August 14, 2014
Over the past few months, Washington Post reporters, hundreds of whom work across the globe, have been arrested in exactly two cities: Tehran, Iran, and Ferguson, Missouri, United States of America. That should tell you something about the ongoing crisis in Ferguson.
On Wednesday, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery was reportedly arrested along with Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post for failing to exit a McDonalds. According to Lowery's Twitter account, the two were "assaulted and arrested" because "officers decided we weren't leaving McDonalds quickly enough, shouldn't have been taping them." No charges were filed.
Lowery is the second Post reporter to have been arrested in the past few months. The first was three weeks earlier and several thousand miles away in Tehran, the capital city of Iran. On July 22, plainclothes police stormed into the home of Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian to arrest him and his wife, who is also a journalist. As in Ferguson, no charges have been filed in Tehran.
The Washington Post is one of the most respected media outlets in the world (full disclosure: it is also my former employer), and its many reporters can trust that this stature will, if nothing else, keep them safe. It was rightly treated as major international news when Rezaian and his wife were arrested by Iranian authorities. So what does it say that the second Post reporter to be arrested was picked up by heavily armed police in a midwestern town in the US?
One major difference, of course, is that Lowery was quickly released, whereas Rezaian has been detained now for weeks. Jason is a friend, and I worry about him and his wife constantly in a way that I would not worry about Lowery. Still, the fact that these are the two cities in the world where Washington Post reporters can be arrested for simple acts of journalism tells us much about the severity of events in Missouri.
After the death of teen Michael Brown at the hands of police, the classic gesture of surrender has become a symbol of protest.
On Tuesday, August 12, the White House put out a statement from President Obama on the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by a police officer, in Ferguson, MO — and the protests that residents have held in the wake of his death. President Obama reiterates that the Department of Justice will be investigating the case, and urges Ferguson residents to "remember this young man with reflection and understanding" — an implicit plea to avoid civil unrest. Here's the statement:
SWAT teams in Ferguson, Missouri, on Monday night fired tear gas at locals gathered in a private backyard, who were holding their hands up to protest the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teen shot by a police officer on Saturday.
The Riverfront Times, a St. Louis alt-weekly, caught the event on camera (warning: offensive language):
The Riverfront Times reports that, after police evacuated most of West Florissant Avenue, some defiant protesters remained in the area. In response, police asked the men through a loudspeaker to go home. When the protesters didn't listen, police threatened to shoot tear gas. After some back-and-forth, the protesters left the streets and went into surrounding yards. But police fired tear gas anyway — into the home of 24-year-old Rich West.
West, clearly upset, began shouting. "This is my backyard! This is my shit!" he yelled. "Y'all go the fuck home!"
The video shows just how high tensions are in Ferguson after a police officer shot and killed Brown. For more information, read Vox's full explainer.
Ferguson, Missouri, is a black town. In 2010, the St. Louis suburb was 67.4 percent black and 29.3 percent white. But if you looked at the city's leadership, you would never know it.
From the Los Angeles Times:
Ferguson’s police chief and mayor are white. Of the six City Council members, one is black. The local school board has six white members and one Latino. Of the 53 commissioned officers on the police force, three are black, said Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson.
As my colleague Dara Lind has pointed out, a state report on racial profiling revealed that last year, 86 percent of traffic stops and 92 percent of all arrests in the city were of black residents. For anyone who didn't understand the context of Ferguson residents' anger and frustration, and why the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager Saturday caused it to bubble over, think of these arrest stats. Then compare the demographics of the city to the demographics of its police force and city council.
Correction: A previous headline on this story indicated that Ferguson's police force is 94 percent white. It is currently unclear how many white officers are on Ferguson's police force.
Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman, has offered an up-close and often terrifying view of what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri, where police and residents have clashed ever since a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, on Saturday, August 9. For an unflinching look at what is going on the St. Louis suburb, follow French on Twitter.
French, who represents the city's 21st ward, has been tweeting out spare commentary along with videos and pictures from the scene. But many of the images speak for themselves, particularly those from Monday night, when police in riot gear used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear the streets of residents, some of whom are shown in French's footage with their hands up in surrender.
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