When I first heard that the Grand Jury had decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, I had some anger. Today I've been looking up what I could find and reflecting on the issues.

photo by BBC
My Unitarian Universalist faith is famously rational. My heart cries for justice – and its habit is to ask my head to help it figure out what the heck that means in a particular case.

We’ve got big problems, and they require our commitment of hearts and heads. I would like to be indignant about the Grand Jury’s decision, but the fact is I’m not sure they were wrong in this particular case. I am sure, though, that there are big wrongs in our land.

What Happened
11:54 a.m. Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson leave Ferguson Market and Liquor. Surveillance video shows Mr. Brown stealing some cigarillos. They walk along West Florissant Avenue and then in the middle of the street on Canfield Drive.
12:01 p.m. Officer Darren Wilson arrives, alone in his police vehicle. Speaking through his window, he tells the two men to move to the sidewalk. He sees that Mr. Brown fits the description of a suspect in a convenience store theft.
12:02 p.m. Officer Wilson makes a call to the dispatcher about the two men. He positions his S.U.V. to block the two men as well as traffic. There is an altercation between Officer Wilson and Mr. Brown, who is standing at the window of the vehicle. Officer Wilson fires two shots from inside the vehicle, one likely grazing Mr. Brown’s thumb, and the other missing him. Mr. Brown runs east. Officer Wilson pursues him on foot. Mr. Brown stops and turns toward Officer Wilson, who also stops. Mr. Brown moves toward Officer Wilson, who fires several more shots. Mr. Brown is fatally wounded. (SOURCE)
Wilson testified that Brown reached into the vehicle and fought for his gun. Wilson fired – plausibly in self-defense at that point. Brown’s blood (evidently from the shot that grazed Brown’s thumb) on the inside of the police vehicle and on Wilson’s clothes indicates that Brown had reached in the vehicle. Some witnesses said Brown punched Wilson while Brown was partly in the vehicle.

Brown then ran 150 feet from the car. Wilson pursued. Brown then ran 25 feet back toward Wilson. Perhaps Brown was trying to indicate surrender. Witnesses differ on whether his hands were up. Wilson interpreted Brown’s move toward him as a charge, a re-initiation of the assault. Wilson fired 10 more times – a total of 12 shots (counting the two fired in the vehicle). The autopsy said Brown was struck with at least 6 bullets – one in the right hand, fired from inside the vehicle, plus 5 more hits – three in the right arm and two in the head. As many as 6 of Wilson’s 12 shots missed entirely. No bullets struck Brown from behind.

Under those circumstances, I, too, might have found that Wilson acted within the guidelines for use of lethal force. Maybe. Maybe not.

Even so . . .

The fact remains that Michael Brown was unarmed. We need our guidelines and trainings to better ensure that alternatives to lethal force are used when an assailant is unarmed.

Moreover, it remains likely that race played a role and that Wilson would have been less likely to have shot a white man in similar circumstances.

It’s About Police Brutality and Growing Police Militarization

Statistics on police abuses are inconclusive, but the trend of militarization is clear. Beginning in the 1990s, Congressional authorization has allowed local police forces around the country to become militarized to a degree never seen before in the United States. Transfers from the Pentagon have included tanks, armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers, helicopters Then, after the September 11 attacks, the Department of Homeland Security paying for new military-grade equipment for local police departments. An ACLU report released last June found
“police overwhelmingly use SWAT raids not for extreme emergencies like hostage situations but to carry out such basic police work as serving warrants or searching for a small amount of drugs.” (SOURCE)
Some SWAT teams are sent out as much as five times a day.

Last spring in Georgia,
“a SWAT team, attempting to execute a no-knock drug warrant in the middle of the night, launched a flashbang grenade into the targeted home, only to have it land in a crib where a 19-month-old baby lay sleeping.” (John Whitehead, Huffington Post - SOURCE)
In Minnesota, a
“SWAT team raided the wrong house in the middle of the night, handcuffed the three young children, held the mother on the floor at gunpoint, shot the family dog, and then 'forced the handcuffed children to sit next to the carcass of their dead and bloody pet for more than an hour' while they searched the home.” (SOURCE)
As one reporter concluded, the problem is
"not that life has gotten that much more dangerous, it's that authorities have chosen to respond to even innocent situations as if they were in a warzone." (ibid)
It’s not just the increasing use of SWAT teams. We’re seeing
“a transformation in the way police view themselves and their line of duty. Specifically, what we're dealing with today is a skewed shoot-to-kill mindset in which police, trained to view themselves as warriors or soldiers in a war, whether against drugs, or terror, or crime, must 'get' the bad guys -- i.e., anyone who is a potential target -- before the bad guys get them. The result is a spike in the number of incidents in which police shoot first, and ask questions later.” (ibid)
Perhaps it is necessary that police be permitted to use deadly force if they have probable cause to believe a suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm either to the officer or to others. The reality, though, is that an officer’s subjective assessment of “probable cause” is rarely questioned – with the practical result being that it’s almost impossible for a police shooting to be judged a crime. And when police do shoot,
“most officers are trained to shoot at a target's center mass, where there is a higher concentration of vital areas and major blood vessels, according to a report by the Force Science Institute, a research center that examines deadly force encounters.” (Sabrina Siddiqui, Huffington Post - SOURCE)
It’s About Our Insane Gun Culture

In many ways, the police are simply doing the best they can. If police are using deadly force more often, sometimes without good reason, it’s partly because the prevalence of guns creates a context in which more situations appear threatening even if they aren’t.

We’ve become a society without the capacity for sanity about guns. As a result, the police, as do all of us, have good reason for suspecting that any angry person may be on the verge of pulling out a gun and opening fire. This reality of contemporary US life forces our officers to react very quickly and extremely. When real guns are as common as they are, a child’s toy gun looks like a threat. As Rev. Christine Robinson notes:
“The wide availability of guns changes everything. We are not living in the world of our childhoods and it is not fair to blame the police in general, or scapegoat any individual police officer for that change. We could, however, work to change this insane gun culture we live in."
And, Yes, It’s Probably Also About Race

White officers mistreat, and are perceived as mistreating, African Americans. As President Obama noted when he addressed the Grand Jury's Brown decision last night, “there are still problems, and communities of color aren’t just making these problems up.”

Yes, Brown reacted with hostility to Wilson’s initial request that Brown and Dorian Johnson step aside. And that hostility was perfectly understandable. There is a widespread sense among the African American community and anyone else who has been paying attention that our police are unfair – often violently unfair – toward people of color. To some extent, the police racial bias becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you treat a population as presumptively hostile, threatening, and needing to be subdued, often violently, then this will tend to make them, in fact, hostile and threatening.

I’m a middle-aged white man. I’m going to respond an officer’s requests as respectfully and cooperatively as I can. I have every reason to believe that this strategy will work for me. Increasingly, African Americans and other marginalized groups have no such reason. Police brutality has become epidemic and it is disproportionately directed at black people.

Over the seven years, 2005-2012, white officers killed a black person on average almost twice a week. Blacks constitute about 12.3% of the population, but are 24% of all people killed by police officers in the US. (These statistics on police shootings, particularly of blacks, are likely to be significantly understated. Police departments self-report the numbers, and these are based on the reportage of only 750 of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the US. SOURCE.)
“A widely publicized report in October 2014 by ProPublica, a leading investigative and data journalism outlet, concluded that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts: ‘The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.’” (SOURCE)
We’re not in Mayberry anymore, Toto (if we ever were), and today’s police are not Sheriff Taylor (if they ever were). Surveys of Latinos and African Americans show that their confidence in law enforcement is low. And its no wonder. The NY Times reports last Nov 26:
A Huffington Post-YouGov poll of 1,000 adults released this week found that 62 percent of African-Americans believed Officer Wilson was at fault in the shooting of Mr. Brown, while only 22 percent of whites took that position. In 1992, a Washington Post-ABC News poll foundd that 92 perccent of blacks -- and 64 percent of whites -- disagreed with the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers involved in the videotaped beating of a black man, Rodney King. (SOURCE.)
Opinions differ because experience of law enforcement differs.

We need justice. I don't know if we needed a different decision from the Ferguson Grand Jury. Maybe. In any case, we certainly need better training for our police officers, better community relations between police departments and the neighborhoods they serve -- and we need to address the insanity of our gun culture. None of this will be easy, and none of it will be quick. We've got to be in this for the long haul.

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