A few seconds of video have reopened old wounds about police brutality in America.
Over the weekend, documentary filmmaker Jason Pollock debuted his movie Stranger Fruit at SXSW, and with it previously unreleased surveillance footage of black teenager Michael Brown at a grocery store. The video shows Brown just hours before he was shot and killed by then–Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014.
According to the filmmaker, the new video shows Brown walking into a store and exchanging marijuana with the clerk for cigarillos at about 1 am on August 9, 2014. But in the footage, Brown turns around and returns the cigarillos — presumably so the clerk can hold them until Brown comes back later. This footage was never released by police before.
The video that was previously released by police, however, showed Brown at this exact same store around 11 hours later. But this time, Brown was shown strong-arming a clerk and getting away with a pack of cigarillos. Back in August 2014, police said the video proved Brown had robbed the store — which police and Wilson’s defenders used as evidence to argue that Wilson had reason to fear for his life when he shot and killed the teenager.
The new video complicates the story by suggesting that Brown showed up at the store not to rob it, but to pick up his cigarillos as part of an ongoing consensual — if illegal — exchange. So it’s not so much that Brown took part in a robbery, but that a run-of-the-mill drug deal went wrong.
The video has not been authenticated by media outlets, nor have local police verified its legitimacy or what it shows. It’s possible that it was edited or otherwise doctored. But it’s already led to protests in the Ferguson area, according to CNN.
Still, the newly released video casts new questions on the Brown shooting case: Why wasn’t this video previously released by police but the other video was? Why did it take a documentary to force it into the light a few years later? And does this really mean anything for the actual shooting of Brown, given that the standards for use of force are so narrow and Wilson was already cleared after a grand jury decided not to indict him?
In other words, nearly three years after Brown’s death, we are once again relitigating the shooting that elevated the massive Black Lives Matter movement over police brutality and the broader racial disparities in how cops use force.
The new video adds another hole in the police story
The new video raises two big questions about what happened hours before Brown was shot and killed.
The first question: Did Brown really forcefully rob the store? The surveillance video that police originally released only seemed to show the end of Brown’s dealings with the store — particularly the moments where he pushed aside a staff member at the store who was trying to keep him from leaving. Police used that piece to make the case that Brown took part in a strong-arm robbery of the store just hours before the shooting. But the new video, again, suggests that Brown had a more consensual arrangement with the business.
The store, for its part, has denied that it was participating in an illegal drug deal. “There was no transaction. There was no understanding. No agreement. Those folks didn’t sell him cigarillos for pot. The reason he gave it back is he was walking out the door with unpaid merchandise and they wanted it back,” Jay Kanzler, attorney for Ferguson Market & Liquor, said in a statement.
The second question: How could this new video not be relevant if the old one was? St. Louis County Police have said that incident in the video “is still irrelevant to our investigation because our department investigated the encounter between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson” — suggesting that they were focused on the moments of the shooting itself, not what happened before. But if that’s the case, why was the old surveillance video of the alleged robbery released in the first place? How was that old video relevant to the shooting if this newly released video isn’t?
Pollock, the documentary filmmaker, said the selective withholding of the video evidence suggests an attempt at character assassination. “We had to do this so that people understand what really happened,” he told reporters. “Because people think all these ridiculous things about him — that he was a thug. And he was not a thug. He just graduated from high school in a place were there was only 62 percent graduation rate. That means he was a rock star, and he beat all the odds, and he was murdered eight days after his graduation.”
Again, the video still needs to be authenticated.
But whatever comes of it, all of this contributes to greater distrust in the police story. The Ferguson Police Department and St. Louis County police investigators have been mired in distrust from the start, with many people refusing to believe the official story of what happened in the moments around when Brown was shot and killed. If more people come to believe that the police were trying to selectively withhold evidence to hurt Brown’s reputation, that will only further worsen distrust in the police over what, exactly, happened in August 2014.
Still, the video doesn’t say much about whether Darren Wilson was legally justified in using force
The video alone, however, doesn’t show that Wilson wasn’t legally justified when he shot and killed Brown.
Under the law, what’s relevant is that Wilson reasonably perceived a threat to himself or others in the moments when he shot and killed Brown. Wilson claimed that after he stopped Brown, the teenager tried to reach for his firearm and later charged at him when he fired the fatal shots. It is these last few moments that would be truly relevant to the shooting: If Wilson thought Brown was trying to hurt him, that would be enough for Wilson to reasonably perceive a threat and use force.
Wilson also claimed that he believed Brown was a robbery suspect, based on a call he got moments before the shooting suggesting that Brown matched the description of a robbery suspect — which would bolster Wilson’s argument that he genuinely believed Brown posed a threat. But even the video might not be too relevant here, because Wilson wasn’t at the time aware of the newly or previously released footage. And, again, what matters is whether in the moment Wilson reasonably perceived a threat.
A local grand jury, police, and the US Department of Justice have so far come down in Wilson’s favor. The physical evidence suggested Brown reached into Wilson’s car during their physical altercation and likely attempted to grab the officer’s gun. The most credible witnesses agreed that Brown moved toward Wilson before the officer fired his final shots. Although some credible witnesses suggested Brown raised his hands up before he died, witnesses who disputed major parts of Wilson’s side of the story were discredited by the physical evidence and when they changed their accounts. In the end, there simply wasn’t enough evidence, especially given the struggle at the car, that Wilson wasn’t justified in fearing for his life when he fired the shots that killed Brown.
The video doesn’t change any of these details. So it’s likely not relevant to the criminal case against Wilson. Still, it may be ultimately relevant to the Brown family’s ongoing wrongful death lawsuit against Ferguson.
Beyond Ferguson and the shooting of Brown, police have a big trust problem
While it’s unclear if the newly released video will alter the legal battles around the Brown shooting, there’s little doubt that it will worsen a very real crisis in policing: distrust in law enforcement.
Consider that even though Wilson was never indicted, the Justice Department found that the Ferguson Police Department was racially biased and used to generate budget revenue instead of protecting the public. Essentially, local officials asked police to raise as much revenue as possible through fines and court fees, and Ferguson police carried out those orders by targeting the city’s poorer, less politically powerful black residents. This led to often frivolous police work, exemplified by one of the Justice Department’s findings:
Officers frequently arrest individuals under Section 29-16(1) on facts that do not meet the provision’s elements. Section 29-16(1) makes it unlawful to “[f]ail to comply with the lawful order or request of a police officer in the discharge of the officer’s official duties where such failure interfered with, obstructed or hindered the officer in the performance of such duties.” Many cases initiated under this provision begin with an officer ordering an individual to stop despite lacking objective indicia that the individual is engaged in wrongdoing. The order to stop is not a “lawful order” under those circumstances because the officer lacks reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. … Nonetheless, when individuals do not stop in those situations, FPD officers treat that conduct as a failure to comply with a lawful order, and make arrests.
More broadly, there are massive racial disparities in police use of force. A previous analysis of the available FBI data by Dara Lind for Vox found that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: They accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete, since it’s based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.
One possible explanation for the racial disparities: Police tend to patrol high-crime neighborhoods, which are disproportionately black. That means they’re going to be generally more likely to initiate a policing action, from traffic stops to more serious arrests, against a black person who lives in these areas. And all of these policing actions carry a chance, however small, of escalating into a violent confrontation.
That’s not to say that higher crime rates in black communities explain the entire racial disparity in police shootings. A 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found, “There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.” That suggests something else — such as, potentially, racial bias — is going on.
At the same time, police are often missing when black communities need them most. Consider the clearance rate — the rate at which cases are solved — for murders and shootings in black communities. As David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, previously told Mother Jones, in minority communities, clearance rates for murders and nonfatal shootings can get “pathetically low. They can easily fall down to single digits.”
Journalist Jill Leovy captured the sentiment this fosters in her award-winning book Ghettoside: “Take a bunch of teenage boys from the whitest, safest suburb in America and plunk them down in a place where their friends are murdered and they are constantly attacked and threatened. Signal that no one cares, and fail to solve murders. Limit their options for escape. Then see what happens.”
Together, all of this feeds into the idea that police overpolice black communities by stopping and shooting black men for petty crimes and simultaneously underpolice the same communities for more serious crimes that actually require police help. And that crisis of confidence is why police are wrangling with movements like Black Lives Matter that think how America does policing is fundamentally broken and needs to be fixed — and why we’re still debating what happened the day Michael Brown was shot and killed.