A New Year’s wish for Ferguson closure

By Marty Rochester

As we usher in 2015, one hopes we can bring closure to the Ferguson chapter in the life of St. Louis. I am not talking about the end of the story. Clearly, much remains to be done in addressing various concerns and healing the community. But perhaps we can put the controversy itself behind us, along with the anger and rage it sparked, and have a more productive dialogue. 

Some will want to use any future white cop-black victim police shooting as an excuse for another round of mayhem, ranging from the kind of burning and looting that occurred Nov. 24 after the grand jury refused to indict Police Officer Darren Wilson, to the less violent but nonetheless bothersome disruptions of traffic and lives, peppered with threats and epithets, that paralyzed much of the metro area almost daily in the weeks following. 

Many of those calling for civil disobedience have failed to condemn the violence in as loud a voice and haven’t understood that illegal demonstrations, however peaceful, carry consequences of jail time or fines. 

My comments here are not aimed at these folks, whose demands for justice would not have been satisfied even had the grand jury indicted Wilson for killing unarmed teenager Michael Brown. I am aiming for the silent majority on both sides of the divide, those supporting Brown and those supporting Wilson. 

On Brown’s side, we have to first acknowledge the tragic loss of a young man and the suffering of a grieving family. We also have to acknowledge legitimate concerns that have been raised about persistent racism in America, including racial profiling. Beyond these obvious points, we need to concede that protestors have raised reasonable criticisms of St. Louis area municipal court systems, traffic enforcement rules and procedures, and police protocols for dealing with criminal suspects. No doubt the entire process from the moment of Brown’s initial interaction with Officer Wilson to the final disposition of the case was hardly a model of how the American justice system should operate.

On Wilson’s side, it was shameful the way in which so many in the media, such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and cable news stations, along with protestors, who were often egged on by irresponsible leaders that included local clergy, rushed to judgment about his guilt without all the facts. 

These same people compounded the problem when they continued to ignore the facts that were presented    once the grand jury decision was announced and all of the testimony and forensic evidence was released, evidence that tended to support Wilson or was at least so sketchy and inconclusive – regarding “hands up” and other issues – as to preclude criminal charges. 

Amazingly, even the convenience store robbery caught on video was dismissed by Wilson’s accusers as mere “shoplifting” and irrelevant to the case.

It is true that St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch did not follow standard grand jury procedures. He might well have thought there was not enough evidence to indict Wilson and send the case to trial. However, he surely realized that, had he not submitted the case to the grand jury, he would have invited even more local and national furor. With a grand jury already in session, he presumably felt that it would be best to present all of the evidence and then release it to the public – admittedly an unusual step – lest he be accused of cherry-picking or withholding evidence and evading transparency. He was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. 

The media constantly recited the old saw that a prosecutor “could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich if he wanted.” No matter a ham sandwich or hot pastrami, just because it may be easy to get a grand jury to indict, does that mean it necessarily should, even if the evidence does not justify it? What happened to such liberal nostrums as “innocent till proven guilty” or “better 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man be found guilty”?  

As a Jewish Light editorial rightly noted, it is very dangerous to our justice system to try a defendant based on larger societal ills rather than on the facts specific to the case. To this day, it remains unclear whether the Ferguson shooting – as opposed to the reaction to the shooting – had anything to do with race except peripherally. Groups with a long-standing racial-justice agenda, some less genuine than others, chose to exploit the Ferguson case as a window of opportunity to promote that agenda. Their agenda was OK, but they picked the wrong case. (Arguably, the Eric Garner case in New York City was more suitable.)

To repeat, there are legitimate racial-justice concerns that deserve our attention. So how do we go about that postscript to the case? 

First, we need to get our facts straight. My University of Missouri-St. Louis colleague David Klinger, an ex-LA cop and now a leading scholar in the field of policing, has noted that we should not stereotype police and exaggerate police brutality, as if the police rather than criminals are the bad guys. For example, his data show that from 2003 to 2012, approximately 20 African-Americans were killed by white police in St. Louis. That figure suggests that white police officers killing blacks — while 20 deaths are significant —  is not quite the epidemic some critics have claimed. Compare that number to the more than 1,000 black-on-black killings during those years. 

That said, we know a widespread perception of distrust of the police remains in black communities that should be addressed. Aside from hiring more black officers and improving community-relations training of police, we might significantly enhance transparency by not only fitting police with body cameras that have audio capabilities but also issuing them Miranda-type scripts that require them, as they take someone into custody, to routinely and politely explain what is happening so that if a struggle ensues it is clearer to observers who provoked it.

Second, beyond the municipal court and other systemic reforms alluded to above, we need to mobilize leadership at the national and local level in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., not Al Sharpton, and Frankie Freeman, not Maria Chappelle-Nadal. We need leaders, white and black, who will not divide, but unite, and will be steadfast in promoting not just bully pulpit words about social justice but real actions. 

Third, we should all try, at least for a day, walking in the shoes of both an African-American in an impoverished inner-city neighborhood and a beat cop patrolling the same neighborhood.

 J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including the forthcoming “New Warfare:  Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”  In addition to teaching courses in international politics, international organization and law, and U.S. foreign policy, he has served as Chairperson of the Political Science Dept. at UM-St. Louis.