There are three reasons officer Darren Wilson was not indicted in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
- Three and a half months have passed since Ferguson, Missouri, became a national symbol of heavy-handed policing in tough urban neighborhoods. Attention evaporates, even when the angry street protestors and the cable-TV live trucks do not.
- Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch didn’t push the grand jury to bring charges, dumping huge piles of evidence on the secret panel without any recommendation at all. Big-city prosecutors are rarely so stand-offish.
- Michael Brown turned out to be a terrible victim. Law-enforcement leaks made sure of that, though they got a major assist from Brown’s history of behavior.
I can’t remember anyone moving this quickly from “innocent teen” to “street bully.” Brown was caught on video stealing from a nearby convenience store. He was fleeing that crime when Wilson’s patrol car rolled up. Witnesses told the grand jurors the teenager leaned menacingly into the car, took a graze wound to the hand and, after a foot chase, stopped, spun around and came back at the officer “in full charge,” to quote the prosecutor’s vivid phrase.
None of this means officer Wilson’s life was actually threatened. None of it means the cop really had to shoot 12 times. None of it means he couldn’t have kept his distance, waited for assistance or simply let the teen get away. Stealing a handful of cigars isn’t exactly the crime of the century. But taken all together, those ugly details were damning enough to shift the dynamic of the year’s highest-profile police shooting case—and give the prosecutor cover.
The Brown family isn’t happy. The street protestors in Ferguson certainly weren’t, as they rampaged into the night. Other demonstrators with flashes of violence hit the streets in New York. The debate will continue over whether prosecutor McCulloch slow-walked the cop out of the court house. But there’s a larger irony in yesterday’s no-true bill: Even though Wilson won’t face state criminal charges, all the other bad impressions left by this deadly encounter seem largely to be true.
There remains a large racial divide in communities like Ferguson, even when no one talks about it. Too many American police departments are too quick to act like military-assault forces. Some law enforcement officials have a giant problem distinguishing peaceful protestors from violent agitators—and too many have a chip on their shoulders about legitimate news coverage.
And especially this one: In investigating questionable police shootings, some prosecutors are awfully cozy with the police departments they are supposed to investigate. What would have happened in Michael Brown were a squeakier victim or the prosecutor had more distance? Would the results have been any different? It’s hard to say no.
One of the reasons Ferguson has remained so fascinating to outsiders is that the case seemed like such a throwback, a raw-nerves police shooting that seemed almost routine in high-crime days of the 1980s and 1990s. Hasn’t that moment already passed in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and other former hotbeds of “no justice, no peace”? Is St. Louis that far behind?
Well, it could be the future too. Crime numbers have tumbled from a couple of decades ago. Protests like these are now relatively rare. But until some of those nagging realities start to improve, any city is still one bad encounter from being the next Ferguson.