There were no surprises to come out of Ferguson, Mo., last week. Neither the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, nor the riot that decision engendered was unexpected by anyone with even a modest familiarity with the matter. And just as predictable has been the left’s attempt to undermine the former and thereby justify the latter. They are to be excused in their rioting, we are told, for the grand jury’s decision is illegitimate.
To cite but one example of this, we turn to the New Yorker, where people of a leftist persuasion turn for guidance on how to think about current events. In a Nov. 25 post at the magazine’s website, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin criticizes St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch for what Toobin sees as a failure to follow the “customary rules” of his profession. “If McCulloch’s lawyers had simply pared down the evidence to that which incriminated Wilson,” Toobin writes, “they would have easily obtained an indictment.”
Perhaps so, but an indictment in the case would have led to a trial that McCulloch knew, as Toobin himself should know, would result in Darren Wilson’s acquittal. Reasonable doubt was everywhere in the case, and prosecutors are ethically bound to proceed to trial only if they are confident of their ability to convince twelve jurors that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It wasn’t going to happen.
So, unless the Justice Department brings civil rights charges against Darren Wilson – still a possibility despite little chance of success – he will not face the public criminal trial that Jeffrey Toobin and so many others wished to see. And even a civil trial arising from a wrongful death claim against Wilson and the city of Ferguson is far from a certainty. Yes, there will be a lawsuit, of course, but it will likely be resolved through a settlement rather than a trial. If a trial were to take place, both sides would have much to lose. If a jury finds for the plaintiffs, the city faces the possibility of a multimillion-dollar judgment, and even if it prevailed, the city might face further rioting and disruptive protests. But lawyers representing Michael Brown’s family have risks to weigh as well. In a civil trial, Brown’s juvenile record would almost certainly be introduced. If it revealed serious violations of the law, a jury might be less sympathetic to his family request for damages. And is there anyone who believes he has no juvenile record?
But even as Michael Brown’s death recedes from the front pages, there are still aspects of the case that require examination, not least of which are the tactics employed by Darren Wilson in the moments leading up to the shooting. Though I’m in agreement with the grand jury’s decision in declining to charge Wilson in Brown’s death, it doesn’t mean I agree the shooting was unavoidable. If we imagine a counterfactual scenario and back up, step by step, from the moment the first shot was fired, we can come up with a way in which Michael Brown might have been arrested without the use of deadly force. This is not intended as a criticism of Darren Wilson, but rather as a reminder to police officers who may someday find themselves in a similar situation.
Among my first thoughts on hearing of the Michael Brown shooting was to wonder if the officer was working alone. An article in Police magazine points out that of 536 police officers killed from 2000 to 2009, only about a third were working alone, suggesting that it’s somehow safer to work without a partner. I’m certain that a deeper exploration beyond the raw numbers would show this to be untrue, but let’s examine the issue as it relates to the Darren Wilson-Michael Brown confrontation.
We are told that Wilson was unaware of Brown’s involvement in the convenience store robbery until he had already initiated contact with Brown and his companion, Dorian Johnson. Had Wilson had a partner, there would have been an extra set of ears in the car to monitor the radio traffic, perhaps allowing the officers to learn in advance of the initial contact that they were dealing with robbery suspects rather than simple traffic violators.
But putting that aside, even if our two hypothetical officers had not been apprised of the robbery, they might have taken an extra moment to discuss how they would handle a pedestrian stop of two men, one of whom weighed 300 lbs. And Michael Brown might have been more hesitant to challenge two officers than he was to take on Darren Wilson alone.
Now take a partner officer out of our scenario. How might an officer riding alone have handled the encounter differently? Wilson told the grand jury that his request to Brown and Johnson to get out of the street was met with expletive-laden defiance. Wilson then radioed for backup, as indeed he should have. But rather than wait for that backup to arrive, he reversed his car and pulled within a few feet of Brown and Johnson, thus giving Brown the opportunity to attack him. The more prudent course would have been to keep the two men under observation from the relative safety of the police car until other officers arrived, then initiate a stop. Had Brown and Johnson attempted to run away, the officers could have set up a containment perimeter and found them through a systematic search. And even if Brown and Johnson eluded the search, how many people living on Canfield Drive are 6-3 and 300 lbs.?
Again, none of this is to imply that the grand jury reached the wrong decision in declining to charge Darren Wilson. But he made the choice to put himself in a vulnerable position while confronting two men, one of whom outweighed him by 90 lbs. Wilson told George Stephanopoulos his conscience was clear, but I can’t imagine he doesn’t harbor some regret at having placed himself in so precarious a position.
Of course, since we’re indulging in counterfactuals, we can imagine that Michael Brown didn’t rob the store, didn’t walk down the middle of the street, got out of the street when told to, didn’t punch Officer Wilson and try to take his gun, didn’t turn around as he ran away, and did lie on the ground when ordered to.
Change any one of those decisions Brown made and he’d be alive today.