Over the years, my experience with police officers have been positive. In fact, my oldest son was a 20 year veteran of the Prince George’s County Maryland Police Department, and I have several friends and business associates who are current and retired officers. However, there have been and continue to be instances across our nation where episodes of police brutality have occurred especially against African Americans. Recent examples include the Eric Gardner homicide in New York on August 1, 2014, resulting from an illegal choke hold by a police officer, and the July 1, 2014, incident in Los Angeles of a bulky California Highway Patrolman on top of Marlene Pinnock, a Black female, punching her unmercifully in the face. In instances like these, police officers who engage in such behavior must be held accountable as any other citizen accused of similar conduct would be. Overall, however, I have great respect and admiration for the act of policing, and applaud the majority of officers who conduct their operations according to good policing standards and principles in the midst of sometimes dangerous situations. However, what transpired in Ferguson, Missouri in recent days was not policing but tantamount to a combat military invasion of an American city. Let me explain.
On August 9, 2014, a Ferguson police officer shot and killed eighteen year old African American Michael Brown. There are conflicting accounts between witnesses and the police regarding the shooting, but one thing that is not in dispute is that Michael was unarmed when he was shot several times. The sentiment within the community is that the Ferguson Police Department could not conduct a real, impartial and transparent investigation, and when the police department declined to identify the officer involved, protests began.
Almost 68% of the citizens in Ferguson are African American, and just under 30% are white. Five of six city council members are white, the mayor is white, the chief of police is white, and the Ferguson police force has 50 white and only three black officers. A Missouri Attorney General report on racial profiling last year shows that there were 611 searches in Ferguson: 562 of blacks; 47 of whites; one of an Hispanic; and one of a Native American. Although whites make up almost 30% of the population, they represent less than 10% of those stopped according to the report. Even though some may believe that these statistics are accurate because blacks are more likely to commit crimes and should be stopped and searched more frequently, however, in instances where illegal products were found, a higher percentage of whites (34%) who were stopped had contraband when compared to blacks (22%).
Michael’s death sparked several days of clashes with angry protesters in the city in the face of a militarized response by county police officers. The officers shot smoke bombs, tear gas canisters, and rubber bullets at demonstrators. The police arrested two reporters, one of whom was wearing his Washington Post press credentials around his neck at the time, the other from the Huffington Post. The police pointed sniper controlled high-powered rifles at unarmed citizens in front of cameras, they refused to identify themselves when making arrests, and had refused to identify or arrest the police officer who killed Michael Brown. According to video, the county police were dressed in military combat uniforms and arrived in machine-gun mounted military armored vehicles. Indeed an out-of-control police department.
“All they did was look at us and shoot tear gas,” Pedro Smith, who has participated in the nightly protests, said on Thursday.
President Barack Obama spoke publicly for the first time about the shooting and the subsequent violence that shocked the nation and threatened to tear apart Ferguson, a town of 21,000 that is nearly 70 percent black and patrolled by a nearly all-white police force.
The President said there was “no excuse” for violence either against the police or by officers against peaceful protesters. But a change came on Thursday evening as demonstrators gathered again. Governor Jay Nixon removed the military brigade of the county police from the equation and inserted the Missouri State Highway Patrol under the leadership of African American Captain Ron Johnson. According to reports, the latest protests had a light, almost jubilant atmosphere among the racially mixed crowd, more akin to a block party. The streets were filled with music, free food and even laughter, according to reports. When darkness fell, the point at which previous protests had grown tense, calm continued.
“You can feel it. You can see it,” protester Cleo Willis said of the change Thursday. “Now it’s up to us to ride that feeling.”
Captain Ron Johnson grew up near Ferguson and commands a region that includes St. Louis County. Together with other high-ranking brass from the Highway Patrol and the county department, Captain Johnson marched alongside protesters on Thursday that provided a police escort for the protestors.
“We’re here to serve and protect,” Johnson said. “We’re not here to instill fear.”
On Friday morning, August 15, 2014, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson released several police reports and documents during a news conference where he also identified Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran of the Ferguson police department, as Michael killer (my word). According to the police reports, Michael Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, were suspected of taking a box of cigars from a store in Ferguson that morning. Jackson said Wilson, along with other officers, was called to the area after a 911 call reporting a “strong-arm” robbery just before noon. He said a dispatcher gave a description of the robbery suspect, and Wilson, who had been assisting on another call, was sent to investigate.
But the police chief’s announcement was met with skepticism and anger by a number of community members who attended the news conference, which was hurriedly held at a gas station burned during a night of looting earlier in the week.
“He stopped the wrong one, bottom line,” yelled Tatinisha Wheeler, a nurse’s aide who was at the news conference.
The police account is that Michael was shot after the officer encountered him and Dorian on the street. The police say that Michael pushed the officer into his squad car, then physically assaulted him in the vehicle and struggled with the officer over the officer’s weapon. At least one shot was fired inside the car before the struggle spilled into the street, where Brown was shot multiple times, according to police.
Even if Brown committed the robbery and the police account of a physical alteration in the officer’s vehicle is true, how, then, can the police justify the fact that according to witnesses, unarmed Michael Brown had his hands in the air in a surrendered position when he was shot repeatedly by officer Wilson? In my opinion, Officer Wilson’s actions were nothing more than premeditated murder, and he should be arrested and charged with first degree murder. In addition, Michael Brown’s death must generate one of the largest voter turnout in Ferguson history to vote out every member of the Ferguson city council who sit by mutely while the African American citizens of Ferguson are being treated like second-class citizens, but that’s just my take.