17 August 2014

In the Heat of the Night

After the shooting of young Michael Brown in a small Missouri municipality, I thought the 150 or so assembled police looked more like a scene from protests in the Middle East than what we like to think of as America. As I was pondered writing my column, I noticed a flood of other commentators thought much the same thing.
A fifty-year-old article lamented the emerging police use of the word ‘civilians’ instead of ‘citizens’. This phrasing, said the writer, not merely positions the police apart from the public, but it sets them above the people like shepherds and sheep. The article predicted the concept of serving the citizens would become lost in this new order.

Adding to this perception is the long-standing “1033 Program” by the Department of Defense, which offers military gear to police in even the smallest communities for pennies on the dollar. Tiny police departments can purchase military helicopters, armored personnel carriers, combat assault gear, mine-resistant vehicles and even tanks. This program has become a concern of both liberal and conservative thinkers. (As usual, I distinguish between liberal and conservative, and left and right, which are not synonymous.)

Ferguson, Missouri

Much has been made of this small city’s lack of professionalism. Ferguson’s population as of the last census is 21,000 and diminishing. But in its decline, political and police presence has grown. While it's true its very white police department arrests twice as many minorities as it does whites, that’s in line with the town’s racial mix. A community sore spot is that only 5% of the police community is black and none are in positions of any real authority.

And police there have stepped over the line before. After a suspect in a savage take-down some time back turned out to be innocent, police retaliated. They charged the man with destruction of property for splattering blood from his injuries on their uniforms. Officers in Ferguson don’t appear to be the brightest loci on the thin blue line.

Large cities have at least two advantages small towns and cities don’t. For one thing, sizable cities can provide professional training. They may have their own academies and for officers, they may have the option to send candidates to degree-offering police institutes. Secondly, major metropolitan areas try to weed out bad apples, gung-ho head cases unsuitable for a profession that requires not only strength, but restraint. Small towns have less of a labor pool– and gene pool– to work with.

Side of the Angels

Here at SleuthSayers, we like to think cops are on the side of the Truth, Justice, and the American way of life. Of those who aren’t, we aren’t shy about speaking up once we know the facts. The facts in Ferguson aren’t particularly auspicious.

It looks like plenty of blame can be passed around. There’s no excuse for vandalizing and looting one’s neighbors, especially small business owners trying to eke out a living in a crumbling downtown. Even if they manage to afford insurance, it won’t fully cover damage and the months they’ll be out of business, possibly begging to become stockers in Walmart. And for what?

Looters aren’t big on reading Consumer Reports. A month from now they’ll be begging some undercover cop to buy a bagful of pink Chinese-made THC Pomposity IV cell phones that earned a meager 1½ stars in Gizmodo.

But terrible political decisions and poor policing make things worse. Here at SleuthSayers corporate headquarters, we’re begging Chief David Dean and Agent Lawton to come out of retirement and kick butt.

What we think we know

A week ago on the 9th of August, a police officer shoots and kills an unarmed 18-year-old boy with his hands raised. The young man has never been in trouble before and is enrolled in technical school to advance his education. Likewise, the officer has never previously been brought up on disciplinary charges.

After shooting, the officer, according to witnesses, does not take the pulse of the victim nor does he inform his superiors of a fatal shooting. Instead, he removes himself and his car from the scene, potentially breaking the chain of any potential evidence on the officer or the vehicle, which in this case may prove important.

Other officers present do not attend to the boy and, according to witnesses, do not allow medical personnel to offer assistance or approach the body. Instead, officers confiscate camera phones from bystanders. Evidence further deteriorates as crime scene investigators fail to to be called in for four hours.

Commanding officers learn about the shooting not from officers at the scene but, like the public, from television news.

The community initially responds with peaceful protests, but as the police department refuses to answer questions, both sides overreact. Vandals loot and damage property and 150 riot police in military gear shock the nation and the world with a military invasion reminiscent of dictatorial crackdowns.

Within days, Governor Jay Nixon calls a state of emergency, which locals refer to as ‘martial law.’ Adding to the atmosphere of authoritarian abuse in support of Ferguson cops who refuse to wear name tags, Missouri lawmakers rush a bill to the floor of the legislature that would shield the names of officers involved in any shooting from public knowledge. If that passes, a rogue cop could be involved in a dozen shootings and the public would never know.

The Police Department, and particularly its police chief, appear to be utterly tone deaf. When the President offers condolences to the family of the victim, town officials ask where are the condolences for them. Eventually Anonymous gets involved, bless their anarchistic little souls.

After out-of-control cops are caught on camera screaming “Bring it on! Bring it you ƒ-ing animals,” the Chief of Police announces he is not interested in talking with community leaders and praises his men for their “incredible restraint,” prompting a commentator to ask, “What does lack of restraint look like?”

Authorities are not finished. In a local McDonald's, police seize camera equipment, then assault and arrest news reporters. They arrest a local alderman who comes to assess the scene for ‘failure to listen.’ They teargas and beanbag a state senator at a peaceful sit-in rally who dares challenge the police chief..

When is a Cigar not a Cigar?

Up to this point, my attention shifted from the increased militarization of police departments to question how poorly the situation was being managed. Hardline authoritarianism is rarely the best solution.

Missouri Highway Patrol
Governor Jay Nixon finally relieves local police of authority and orders the Missouri State Patrol to take over.

When the state police arrive, the atmosphere immediately changes. The community welcomes them, some even hug the troopers. The mayor of Ferguson reportedly says he feels safer with their presence.

In defiance of Department of Justice requests not to further inflame the community, after relieved of command, this embattled Chief of Police– without informing the state police who've just replaced him– holds a press conference to announce that young Michael Brown has now surfaced as an after-the-fact suspect in a theft of… (I can’t believe I’m writing this) … a package of cigars.

Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson sharply criticizes Ferguson's Police Chief Thomas Jackson's unilateral press conference about the stolen cigars. This breath of fresh air only enhances the community's respect for Captain Johnson's professionalism contrasted with the self-serving broadsides by the local police chief.

The cigar evidence is somewhat tenuous but, whether or not true, the chief's proclamation smacks of a specious and insensitive smears. The police chief himself acknowledges the two incidents are unrelated, that the officer involved in the shooting was unaware of the cigar store theft.

State police vow not to let that accusation cloud the greater issues at hand. These two men epitomize the right and the wrong way to handle community policing. Ferguson’s “civilians” may have found their Virgil Tibbs in the person of Captain Ron Johnson.


  1. Leigh, as I think you might have guessed, I'm not a person who likes to comment on national news items, believing it's tough to get to the true facts of the matter.

    Instead, I'd like to comment on why I believe that video might have been released. I rather suspected the reason they released the video was not so much because the guy had stolen a box of cigars, bur rather more because it showed him shoving a person (the store owner I think), or roughing him up a little, about ten minutes (I think that's the time frame given.) before his encounter with the police officer. I think the idea behind the release might have been to let everyone see that the guy was in a belligerent frame of mind shortly before being stopped by the cop. Of course, God (and anyone who regularly reads this blog) knows I can certainly be wrong in my suppositions.


  2. Good point, Dixon. You may well be right, although Chief Jackson's release of the information angered the Missouri State Patrol. Apparently the Ferguson police did not make the Highway Patrol aware they had the video tape, which blindsided the authorities put in charge. I expect a lively discussion ensued.

    It's important to note two things:
    (1) Brown looks like he's a very sizable guy and I imagine he could be intimidating in a confrontation.
    (2) Officer Wilson did not know Brown had been involved in the theft of cigars. He'd stopped him for walking in the middle of the street (which makes me wonder if Brown was in an altered state).

    Chief Jackson said Brown shoved Officer Wilson into his police cruiser, striking his face. Jackson further alleges that Brown went for the officer's service piece.

    Witnesses say that Wilson ordered Brown to "get on the sidewalk" and that Brown turned his back on the officer and put up his hands, whereupon Wilson fired multiple shots.

    It's possible parts of both accounts are true, that Brown may have shoved the officer into the car, injuring his face, and then turned and walked away with his hands up. It's not clear why the officer left the scene and failed to report the fatal shooting to his superiors unless his facial injuries were so severe he needed immediate medical attention.

  3. The place for a tape like that to be released is a court of law. That's where people make a decision about what happened -- to the best of their ability to figure out. What's going on here is everyone is trying Mr. Brown's case in the court of immediate public opinion. The reason the people of Ferguson are so angry is, in large part, because they are saying that's how they are tried and judged, and too often condemned, EVERY SINGLE DAY -- just because of their skin color. So the police chief's release of the tape supports their assertion, because his "point" is: "See, he stole a box of cigars and intimidated another guy, so we have proven he's a bad guy and that he probably bullied (there's a concept!) our cop, so *he deserved what he got*." His point was that if you steal something and "behave badly" in Ferguson, and you are black, it's a capital offense. And "clearly" he was "guilty" -- no trial needed. Never mind that the cop was armed and supposedly trained to handle dangerous situations without killing people. Never mind that he didn't even KNOW the guy might have just robbed a store. He shot the young man because he was leaving the area against orders. That is ALSO not a capital offense. It doesn't matter if Brown had even beaten someone to death just beforehand and the cop didn't know it (just as he didn't know he'd stolen cigars) -- you can't shoot someone in the back just for leaving against police orders to stay. That's NOT how it works in this country. Yeah, bad guys get away sometimes because of that. But that's the price we all pay for a country in which you are innocent until you are proven guilty by a court of law. Period.

  4. Reeling from the mid-east casualty videos and depressed over Robin William's choice to leave this earth just when we need more of his humor, I had refused to watch the goings-on in Missouri.
    In fact, I thought the small blips I heard while surfing past the news mentioned Mississippi. Reflecting on the sixties, I thought it a logical place for this kind of police nonsense not Missouri.
    Finally, I forced myself to watch some news just in time to see the store video of Brown. He was not a nice guy as his parents want everyone to believe.
    I have to agree with Dixon on this one. The surfacing of this video was to make everyone aware of the real character of the deceased.
    Also, the size of Brown helped me realize that the police officer who shot him dead was probably scared witless. That doesn't make him right.
    The officer could/should have called for back up and stayed in his car. Let's face it, there is no way Brown could blend in with the crowd. Finding him for an arrest could have been easy.
    Also, once the store video surfaced, jail would have been Brown's next destination, not college, as his parents think and want the world to believe.
    Still, it is a shame that police officers are not drilled in RESTRAINT no matter what the circumstances.
    I feel for the parents who must deal with the death of an only son as well as deal with a rude awakening to a video of him portraying a side I bet they didn't know existed.
    The reaction of the town and police force is shameful but in my opinion, merely reflects the pervasive state of anger and despair in the world.
    What is the source for the anger and out-of-control actions throughout this world? Tell me when you figure it out because I'm back to lighting candles for Robin, who fought the bleakness, and watching gentle movies of hope, deleting every news channel from my TV.

  5. Anon, your analysis strikes me as particularly insightful about what the community feels.

    To me, the local chief is guilty of bad management and it may have trickled down down to the cops on patrol. There were numerous reports of protesters trying to protest stores from looters, but the local police didn’t distinguish good from bad. The chief’s authority was challenged and he was going to kick ass to put down the rebellion.

    None of this relates to whether Michael Brown stole a box of cigars, which it looks increasingly likely he did. Cigars isn’t what this is about. It’s about a police chief and his underlings who failed to with the respect of the community he’s supposed to serve. That didn’t happen this week; from the history it looks like the disdain on both sides has been building upwards of two decades.

    From the welcome given Captain Johnson, it’s apparent the community craves someone to fill that void. I suspect the captain is every bit as tough as the police chief, but he’s willing to give the community his ear and his support. It’s been a harsh lesson, but someone like him might make all the difference.

  6. Claire, you’re right on all points and I’m glad you took the time check us out, distressing as it may be. Thank you.

    As Dixon pointed out, the risk of writing about current events is that ongoing news is fluid. Events changes day to day, sometimes hour to hour. At one point even Captain Johnson appeared not to know what was going on when he was blindsided by Chief Jackson’s news conference.

    The best hope is the chance of a learning experience. I get the impression Chief Jackson is locked in an intractable mindset, although I hope I’m wrong. We don’t know anything about Officer Wilson, but on the chance he wasn’t struck in the face, he may be scarred with the knowledge of a death on his hands.

    The looters? Vandals? It’s hard to imagine any lessons might stick there, but community protesters made it known looting and property damage was not acceptable.

    Thanks for tuning in. I’m a news junkie but I appreciate that some days crappy news can be too much.

  7. Nobody's coming out of this looking too good, except Captain Johnson so far.

    My county recently had what feels like a close call - I almost said dodged a bullet.

    A 25-year-old African-American (they make up 1% of the county's population), a financial analyst and semi-pro quarterback, was "called out of his home at rifle-point, handcuffed, questioned, and detained for hours in the back of a patrol car."

    There had been a home invasion robbery next door and the babysitter said the culprits were two Black men, one of whom looked like the neighbor.

    Turns out the robbers had been friends of hers, both white.

    Fortunately everybody stayed cool and all the unfortunate man experienced was a few bad hours in a patrol car. That's terrible but it didn't end any lives or police careers.

    I like to think that our cops here are better trained than the cops in Ferguson and our residents have less reason to fear/resent them. But that's just my guess and hope.

    More about my local story: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2014/08/15/3803947/babysitter-accomplices-in-bogus.html

  8. A good analytical synopsis, Leigh, of the event which helps give perspective to what is known an unknown, aside from speculations, and good points made by all. Thank you.

    I am reminded of the suspense novelist, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, who passed recently, of whom it was written "Some of Mrs. Davis’s books start with a murder, then probe her characters’ behavior and motivations." It also brings to mind the tagline for the Shadow radio series "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"

    Most facts we can gain hold of, though we are usually bereft of every single detail in any crime. But the hardest 'facts' to acquire would be the behaviors and motivations that lie within any of the characters involved. These we can only surmise, even with testimonies.

  9. Rob, that’s a sharp little 4-year-old! Peach skin and grumpy voice indeed.

    I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a better way than handcuffing a guy and storing him in the back of a squad car. I spent 10 minutes in the back seat of an Atlanta state police cruiser and there was zero leg room and zero air conditioning. (Okay, okay, not what you’re thinking– I’d shredded a tire on the interstate and the trooper drove me to a repair station.)

    Rob, I noticed on the opposite side of the great state of Washington a security guard apparently maced a bystander for being black. The victim was walking past a Palestinian demonstration where a shirtless white guy was harassing and shouting obscenities at them. A security guard rushed up and– despite the crowd telling him he got the wrong man– pepper-sprayed the face of and handcuffed the hapless black guy because he ‘approached him’– to ask for help.

  10. Bradley, you bring out good points. In addressing Anonymous’ comment above, I started thinking of the events in terms of story-telling, but in real-life situations, people die and their families don’t want their tragedy made into entertainment.

    To much demonization has occurred. In the heat of extraordinary events, people can do rash things. Sometimes their programming, good and bad, takes over; sometimes they just screw up.

    My mental picture of Chief Jackson isn’t flattering. I don’t think he’s a horrible person, but the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time, an official more interested in applying force than any other option.

    From time to time, David Dean kept coming to mind who strikes his fans as being thoughtful and likely to use a reasoned approach before resorting to force. It’s only speculation like fantasy football, but I can’t help but wonder how he might have handled the situation.

  11. Leigh, I am flattered by your perception of me, however untrue it may be. As for how I would handle such a situation, I would not even hazard a guess at this point. No one knows how they'll react to certain situations until they are in the midst of them. The investigation into the Brown shooting is far from over, and the facts are not yet in. Everything up to this point is speculation and, to some degree, fantasy fulfillment depending on how one secretly wishes the narrative to read. The rioting was not helpful, and has only muddied the waters and delayed the process. I'm sorry for nearly everyone involved in this mess.

  12. And a mess it is. Thank you, David!

  13. A Broad Abroad17 August, 2014 20:41

    So sad, so wrong, so frightening on so many levels. Not an easy read but thank you for explanations (too early for clarity)on various points from you and SS readers.

  14. Leigh, a few months ago the Daily Show gave advice on Open Carry in restaurants. The cheerful white correspondent more or less quoted NRA guidelines while the black correspondent got more and more pessimistic and finally advised: "Stay home! Make it a Digiorno night!" Grimly funny.

  15. Sundown laws have been struck down (Nigger, be outta town by sundown), but I have been hearing a number of Missouri towns with growing black populations require residency permits, a little like condo association but at the municipal level. These accomplish multiple purposes, one of them of course to control who lives there. If you’ve bought a house and allow your boyfriend to move in, he must obtain his own residency permit, else he’s considered living there illegally. The permits, which must be renewed, have become a major source of revenue for towns.

    But there’s another insidious effect. A newly elected black mayor was denied access to the town hall, the seat of operations for the town. The city attorney contended 27 of her votes were fraudulent even though those 27 people were registered to vote in that county. Why? Because those voters didn’t have residency permits, the city attorney claims their votes were cast illegally.

    In a more widely publicized case where a black woman was elected major of her Missouri town, the majority of police, the city attorney, and some number of city services supervisors all resigned, refusing to work for the new mayor.


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