Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson, Mo.: No real surprise, so why the outrage about outcome?

I wasn’t surprised to learn Thursday night that Missouri authorities chose not to indict a suburban St. Louis police officer in the shooting death of an 18-year-old who happened to be black.

In terms of legal issues, the key to remember in dealing with cases involving alleged police abuse is that the law gives police officers the authority to use force and realizes there are going to be times when they screw up.

THE BURDEN OF proof in this case was literally on those who wanted to regard the death of Michael Brown, who was shot to death by Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson, as an offense worthy of a charge of murder to prove that the officer virtually set out to kill the young man without any justification.

Merely showing that the officer over-reacted, or acted ineptly, was not good enough.

Which is why county Prosecutor Robert McCullough could say with a straight face Thursday night on national television that no crime took place, and that the people who were screaming for Wilson’s head were acting on bad information.

“It was speculation,” he said. “There was little if any solid information.”

WHICH MAY WELL be true. It is not uncommon in the confusion of a crime scene for details to get twisted about, for accounts to change, and for some people to later be found to be full of it when reviewing the stories they initially tell.

Yet I don’t doubt the sincerity of those hundreds of people who felt compelled to show up in Ferguson Thursday night to picket outside the police station in that suburb; to let it be known they’re sick and tired of having black people singled out for abuse by the people who supposedly are there to protect them.

Although I think in most cases of this type of law enforcement misconduct, it’s more a case of police having an apathetic attitude toward incidents where black people are involved.

Police didn’t care enough to figure out what kind of threat Brown – who allegedly tried to steal cigars from a store – might really be. So a stupid assumption resulted in the man’s death.

PEOPLE SEEKING A sense of “justice” in this case are going to have to settle for the fact that Ferguson municipal government is as cowardly when it comes to perceived wrongdoing as many other governments.

It seems that Wilson will lose his job as a police officer. He’s out of work. For the near future, his name is going to crop up in ways that will make him virtually unemployable.

Yet compared to what some people wanted to see happen, it won’t seem significant enough.

After all, Wilson is the guy who got married on Sunday (to a fellow Ferguson police officer) and had his name cleared (in a legal sense) on Monday.

NO TRUE BILL returned against him for a charge of murder, either first or second degree. Not even for manslaughter, voluntary or involuntary.

I’m taking the same basic attitude about this case that I take toward many stories involving courts and legal issues. I wasn’t there in Ferguson, so I don’t know first-hand what that grand jury heard to make them reach the conclusion that criminal charges would not be justified.

McCullough harped on that point, saying that only the grand jurors heard all the evidence and would know why they came to the conclusion they did.

Yet there was also speculation in the hours and minutes leading up to the Thursday night announcement that prosecutors overwhelmed grand jury members with information during the months they were in session on this case that their primary feeling these days is probably relief that the case is now over.

IT REMINDS ME of that stupid old cliché about the courts, the one that goes “A grand jury would indict a ham sandwich.” Implying that grand juries will do what they are told, because their outcome merely means a case goes to trial – where actual “guilt” or “not guilt” is determined.

McCullough clearly did not want the stink of a delicatessen on his hands. No ham sandwiches were prepared for indictment here.

Instead, our society gets the “stink” of the perception that officials were too eager to clear a police officer, while other people will go out of their way to ignore any thought that such a sentiment could ever occur.


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