On this day in 2014, a federal police officer by the name of Darren Wilson was called to the scene of an alleged theft at a convenience store in the quiet, working class neighbourhood of Ferguson, Missouri.
This police call out would later result in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, and mark the beginning of a week-long violent protest that would propel the once sequestered northern suburb of St. Louis, into the media spotlight.
The killing of Michael Brown was just one of the countless fatalities of black men at the hands of white police officers in America. Notable incidents that have sparked similar public outrage in the past include; the murders of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and of course, the notorious beating of Rodney King in 1992, by the LAPD. The case of Mr. King was particularly significant as it was videotaped, highlighting many of the black community of the times concerns about police brutality and institutional racism within the LAPD, and the American police system at large.
The subsequent investigation into the Los Angeles Police Department confirmed that these fears were indeed true, and therefore could no longer be passed off as black paranoia and superstition. Despite this, the trial jury announced that they had found four officers not guilty of the use of excessive force in the arrest of Rodney King, sparking the largest and most destructive civil disturbance of its kind. The results of the inquest were both frightening yet unsurprising to many people of colour in the Los Angeles area. The damning outcome of the investigation meant that radical police reform needed to be implemented both in the state of Los Angeles and across the wider, continental United States.
However, twenty five years on from the case of Rodney King we find ourselves marking the third anniversary of the killing of yet another unarmed black man by a white police officer, so how much has really changed?
The protests in Ferguson following Michael Brown’s death were not unique, however; they were the first notable protests to warrant an intervention by the human rights organisation Amnesty International, on US soil. During the course of the riots, the Ferguson police departments’ reaction to the uprising was heavily criticised by the media and politicians alike. The militarised response, administration of nightly curfews, water cannons and tear gas were largely regarded as unmeasured, insensitive and excessive. Human rights law recognises the authority of police to use specific tactics in response to civil unrest and respond accordingly to any perceived threats. However, the issue of whether the situation on the ground at the time merited the force that was used by Ferguson police is what Amnesty International began to question. The use-of-force (UoF) law in Missouri therefore came under scrutiny for this very reason.
In his testimony, Officer Darren Wilson stated that he shot to defend his life and the state of Missouri’s law exonerated him of criminal wrongdoing. According to state statute at the time; use of deadly force is justified if the officer believes that the suspect has or will commit a felony, is escaping with a deadly weapon, or that the public and/ or officer is in imminent danger, regardless as to whether any danger actually existed. This means Missouri officers could shoot at unarmed suspects running away or shoot for minor incidents such as theft or fraud.
Some steps have been taken to alter the legislature in Missouri, with a bill being passed that changes the wording of the doctrine from “believes” to “reasonably believes.” However, Democratic Senator Jamilah Nahseed voted against the motion, due to her belief that the language was “not doing anything to change the dynamic when it comes to deadly force.” The Senator proposed an amendment to the bill suggesting a change of wording from “believes” to “probable cause”, which would dramatically change the grounds for use of deadly force by an officer, but her proposal was rejected.
There are countless incidents where armed and dangerous white suspects have been talked down and apprehended by police without the use of a firearm. Cases that come to mind include that of Julia Shields, James Eagan Holmes and Charleston church shooter Dylan Roof; who shot nine black parishioners in cold blood before being arrested, unscathed by South Carolina police and later bought a meal in Burger King when he complained of hunger while in police custody. Evidently, it is not impossible for officers to safely arrest a suspect when they want to. But the law still requires altering in order to force officers to think twice before firing at a suspect during altercations and routine checks.
More often than not, officers are given the benefit of the doubt in court when they have killed or seriously injured a suspect who was later found to be of no real threat. Due to this, citizens, (especially black men) are left at the mercy of police who are rarely ever held civilly or criminally liable for their conduct. On top of this, numerous police departments also have no substantial internal or external means of holding officers accountable. As a result, both police departments and individual officers are often unaffected by their use of excessive force. There is no law in existence to deter police from using deadly force in the first place, and this is the root of the issue. In many states, officers can simply say that they feared for their lives in court and can almost be guaranteed to walk free, even if they are caught on camera. In many ways, the American justice system is structurally designed to give greater protection to police, than it is to its citizens.
A study by the US Department of Justice found that over a 20 year period, federal prosecutors chose not to press charges in 96% of cases against officers accused of civil rights abuses. This startling figure contrasts heavily with the mere 23% rejection rate for all other allegations of criminal activity by police. It is evident that if any real change is to be made to reduce the number of deaths at the hands of police officers, it has to come from the top down.
If cases like that of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling and Michael Brown are to be a thing of the past, far more stringent measures need to be taken by the upper echelons of American law making society. Therefore, legislature must be rewritten and outdated doctrines revised, in order to ensure greater, nationwide transparency of legal process and the provision of an independent, structured and effective means of holding the police accountable. In addition to this, juries, judges and the police force itself must embrace greater levels of ethnic diversity, in order for them to be representative of the communities they serve and ensure that both citizens and federal officers alike are promised a fair trial. Steven Hawkins, the US director of Amnesty International said it best when he said;
“The US cannot continue to allow those obligated and duty-bound to protect to become those who their community fears most.”