A St. Louis County grand jury has decided not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson for the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, and everyone is now trying to figure out what that means.
Brown’s death, which surfaced the deeply burrowed and difficult-to-reconcile tensions that in some ways define our nation’s history, seems too visceral, too revealing to be without consequence.
But that might be the deep fear that hides behind the second-guessing of the grand jury: No indictment is, as some have said, an indictment of the system. And what if that system is too difficult to change?
“I just think the institutions have to be looked at,” Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who is now a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York, told TPM on Tuesday. “The titillating gotcha stuff, that’s unfortunately what dominates the news. The real issues are profoundly more complicated.”
As O’Donnell summarized it: “It’s a scary system.”
That system was on full display in Ferguson, on the suburban fringe of St. Louis, itself plagued by the 20th century ills of segregation, white flight and inner city decay and neglect. Ferguson is a majority black town with a mostly white city government and police force. An unarmed young black man killed by a white police officer. Protestors of the perceived injustice confronted by law enforcement wielding military equipment, provided for free by the Pentagon. A state grand jury’s refusal to indict the police officer, a result in part of legal and cultural norms that make charges exceedingly unlikely when police officers use their weapons in the line of duty, no matter the circumstances.
At first, there seemed to be momentum for real reform. Politicians from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) called for an end to the Defense Department program that put military gear in the hands of local police. A White House petition was created on Aug. 13 for a “Mike Brown” law, which would require police to wear body cameras and in theory eliminate the he-said, she-said that inevitably favors the police and dictates the official story in such incidents. President Barack Obama himself ordered his administration to review programs and policies put under the spotlight by Brown’s death and the protests that followed.
But more than three months after Brown was killed, that momentum is dissipating. Inertia, always underestimated as the most powerful force in politics, eventually set in.
BuzzFeed’s Evan McMorris-Santoro reported Monday on the slow demise of any reforms to the Pentagon program that put military gear in Ferguson police hands. The culprit was the usual one: A well-entrenched special interest — this time, law enforcement groups — stymying any prospects for change.
“We got a lot of pushback from law enforcement,” one Republican staffer involved in the debate told BuzzFeed.
The law enforcement community wasn’t shy about taking credit for it either. Fraternal Order of Police executive director Jim Pasco told Bloomberg’s Dave Weigel on Tuesday that his members had spoken to almost every senator and more than half of the House about the de-militarization agenda.
“We wouldn’t be talking about Ferguson if it wasn’t for the fact that a white police officer shot a young black man, but a lot of people didn’t want to jump on that specifically,” Pasco said. “They jumped on this militarization issue because it made them look like being in the mix on Ferguson without being in the mix on Ferguson. Rather than be proponents of good public policy, they were practicing that tactic of political opportunism.”
Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the Brown family, repeated their wish on Tuesday for a “Mike Brown” law that would require police officers to wear body cameras. A White House petition for such a law was filed in the days after the shooting and it attracted more than 150,000 signatures, prompting the required response from the administration.
While expressing a general sort of support for the concept, Roy Austin, deputy assistant to the president, pointed out “the many unanswered questions” about police body cameras. There were other practical matters to consider, too.
“The issue of cost also cannot be ignored,” Austin wrote. A quick TPM sweep of a few House staffers who might be sympathetic to the policy didn’t yield any sign of pending action in Congress.
Not all hope for reform is lost. A Missouri state lawmaker has proposed a bill that would allow the state attorney general to determine whether charges should be filed in an officer-involved shooting, per the Associated Press. Considering the distrust of the Wilson grand jury, which resulted in part from the prosecutor’s relationship with police, that would be a substantive win for those advocating for action.
A separate Justice Department investigation also continues, and those who have rallied to the Brown family’s side, who gathered by the thousands in cities across the country after Monday’s news, won’t be giving up anytime soon.
“Let all of America join us in demanding change for the lives of our children and the sake of our communities,” Crump said on Tuesday, “especially the family of Michael Brown and so many others whose children have been killed by police.”
But the system working against them cannot be overlooked.