Making Sense of Darren Wilson’s Story

Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson said Tuesday night that he's had a "clean conscience" since fatally shooting unarmed black teen Michael Brown on Aug. 9.
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We should always be careful not to force concrete individual events – individual tragedies – into the greater, broader social injustices into which they seem to and may indeed fit. It’s with this skepticism that I’ve approached the death of Michael Brown from the start. So I was surprised that finally reading Darren Wilson’s testimony changed my impression of what happened a lot.

To be clear, I always thought Michael Brown’s death was a terrible thing. And I suspected it was illegitimate by various measures. I thought there was a good chance that the reality of what happened amounted to criminally culpable murder. But I wasn’t sure. In part that’s because of the limits of my own knowledge and the conflicting witness accounts. But it’s also because I know that our law is heavily weighted in favor of exonerating police officers when they kill civilians. There are a lot of reasons for this – some good, a lot not so good. But the simple reality is that the law gives police officers wide latitude to use lethal force against civilians if they reasonably believe they are in danger. Combine the fact that juries tend to believe police officers over shooting victims and how police officers get a lot of latitude describing their perceptions and you don’t get many cases where police are charged for shooting civilians.

To put this a different way, I went into Monday uncertain whether Michael Brown’s killing was murder or a legally (if not morally) justified shooting into which the rage and righteous indignation over generations of police killings of black men – continuing right up to today – was being poured. After reading Wilson’s testimony, I felt pretty confident that Wilson was a liar – at least about critical elements of his story.

That was my first reaction. The second was tied to the imagery Wilson used to describe Brown and the intense fear he recalled feeling during the minute or two when he and Brown’s life intersected.

First, not believing Wilson.

I’m going to set aside all the questions about just how far apart Wilson and Brown were when the fatal shooting occurred, the angle of Brown’s body, whether his hands were up. Lots of people have parsed the evidence on that a lot more closely. Those points are technical and accounts are conflicting.

It’s Wilson’s description of how the incident began that just does not ring true. To believe Wilson, you have to believe that Brown, an 18 year old, is stopped by a police officer on a street in broad daylight. The police officer is armed. He’s in an SUV. And Brown’s immediate reaction is to begun screaming and cursing him, physically attacking him and before long literally daring him to shoot him.

Here’s how Wilson’s account unfolds: Wilson passes Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson and tells them to stop walking in the middle of the street. The two friends basically blow Wilson off at first and then when Wilson tells them again, Brown yells “fuck what you have to say.” When Brown and Johnson ignore Wilson’s request, he backs up his vehicle and turns to the left, slightly cutting them off. As Wilson begins to get out of his car, Brown says “What the fuck are you going to do about it” and slams the door shut on him.

After this, Brown and Wilson scuffle with Brown leaning into the car striking Wilson and Wilson, still seated, defending himself. Wilson describes thinking through how to escape from Brown or which weapon to use against him before finally pulling his gun and saying “get back or I’m going to shoot you.”

At this point, Brown grabs Wilson’s gun and says “you are too much of a pussy to shoot me.”

They scuffle. A shot goes off but neither is injured. Brown comes at Wilson again – another scuffle and another shot which apparently hits Brown in the finger. Brown runs off. It’s after this that the fatal shooting takes place, with the various questions about how it happened.

I’m compressing a lot of testimony here. But these are the key escalating moments. (Read the whole transcript here and a helpful annotation of the key passages here.)

Possible? Sure. Anything’s possible. But I doubt it.

We all have our intuitive, experience-based sense of what’s credible and what’s not. I doubt Michael Brown was going to physically assault an armed police officer in broad daylight, sitting in his SUV, without any apparent provocation or mutually escalation. But what really puts it over the edge are Brown’s alleged statements, as recounted by Wilson. None of them ring true from what we know about Brown.

Some point out that Brown had roughed up a convenience store clerk after stealing some cigarillos just a short-time before the shooting. It’s ugly video. So he is “no angel” as the Times once notoriously put it. But attacking an armed police officer is not an act which follows clearly at all from stealing from a convenience store. If anything, it would probably make it more likely that he would run, though it’s certainly possible it could have the reverse effect. Others point out that Brown had pot in his system – enough to be arrested for driving under the influence if he’d been in Washington State. The Post, in a controversial article, said this “may have been high enough to trigger hallucinations.”

I’ve seen a lot of people really high on pot. I’ve seen them do stupid things. I’ve even seen them have hallucinations, or at least things that could really only be explained by hallucinations. I’ve never seen anyone have what I’d call a violent hallucination when they’re stoned. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible. I know it’s possible. But it is not at all common. Indeed, quite the contrary. The only solid evidence I’ve seen tying marijuana use to aggression or violence is when habitual heavy users try to go cold turkey. And clearly that wasn’t the case here.

The type of behavior Wilson describes is what you would expect from someone high on a drug like PCP or an unmedicated schizophrenic with violent tendencies. Immediate aggression, something verging on a death wish. I know police officers routinely deal with levels of abuse, crazy, aggressive behavior from people who are not in any medical sense crazy. I just don’t buy that that is how this happened. And I’m sort of surprised that many others do either.

Here’s what I see as a more plausible scenario: Wilson sees Brown and Johnson walking in the middle of the road. He tells them to move over to the sidewalk. Brown and his friend give Wilson some lip or don’t give him the answer that he wanted. So Wilson puts the car in reverse and grabs Brown to get his attention. This leads to a scuffle through the car door and things degenerate quickly, through either or both men’s impulsive behavior. (Everyone seems to agree that this scuffle took place through the car door; they just disagree about what led to it, who started it.)

(As a secondary point, in his testimony, Wilson describes a fairly merciless beating from Brown, one that left him in fear for his life just from the physical interaction. But the photos of Wilson after the confrontation do not back that up. They don’t clearly discredit it either. You don’t know exactly how a fight is going to show up on someone’s body. But to me it further undermined his credibility.)

Wilson’s version of events simply doesn’t sound credible. It’s too over-the-top. It sounds like it’s out of a movie. It sounds like the far-fetched version of events you’d tell to explain or justify what was at best a terribly handled situation.

Put it another way, I can see a lot of ways that this could have started. And it could have been driven by Brown’s actions. I just don’t buy this maximal account. It’s not credible. At best it’s gilding the lily and more. The fatal shooting that happened a few moments later could have been justified or not justified depending on what happened after this confrontation in the car. But Wilson’s claims about how the confrontation began strike me as so unbelievable that it gives me little reason to believe anything else he said about what happened later.

So that’s point one. Reading Wilson’s testimony made him seem far less credible to me than he did before I read it, before I’d ever read his side of the story.

Then there’s the way he describes Brown. Describing Brown as menacing and raging is in a sense no different from what Wilson claimed was his over-the-top aggressive behavior. But here I found myself wondering how much of this was Wilson’s attempt to justify the shooting after the fact and how much of it was his actual perception of the events at the time.

Remember that while Brown was very stocky, he and Wilson were both six feet four inches tall. Brown may have been as much as eighty pounds heavier than Wilson. But Wilson is 6″ 4′ and weighs 210 pounds. He’s not a small guy.

But from the beginning Wilson focuses to a striking degree on Brown’s size, his immense strength, his almost inhuman qualities and again and again on his rage. A number of these passages have been highlighted by others. But a few stand out.

On seeing Brown and Johnson for the first time.

“The next thing I noticed was the size of the individuals because either the first one was really small or the second one was really big.”

Early in the car scuffle.

“I tried to hold his right arm and use my left hand to get out to have some type of control and not be trapped in my car any more. And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.”

Feeling overpowered and small.

“That’s just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.”

On punches during the scuffle.

“I felt that another one of those punches in my face could knock me out or worse. I mean it was, he’s obviously bigger than I was and stronger and the, I’ve already taken two to the face and I didn’t think I would, the third one could be fatal if he hit me right.”

After Wilson’s gun fires for the first time in the car.

“And then after he did that, he looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”

When Wilson says Brown stops running and turns back toward Wilson.

“He turns, and when he looked at me, he made like a grunting, like aggravated sound and he starts, he turns and he’s coming back toward me.”

During Brown’s alleged charge toward Wilson.

“At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way … Just coming straight at me like he was going to run right through me … And then when [the bullet] went into him, the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was done, it was gone, I mean, I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped.”

Again, maybe this is just more gilding the lily. Or maybe Brown for any number of factors was in a fit of rage. But rightly or wrongly, reading these parts of the testimony I came away thinking that a lot of this was his perception – or conditioned by all the unpleasantness of police work and also his feelings about black men.

This part of the testimony reminded me of this police shooting incident from late summer in South Carolina.

You’ve probably seen this video. The cop was eventually fired and charged with aggravated assault. It’s a horrifying piece of video, only slightly softened by the knowledge that the victim recovered from his wounds.

The short version is that young police officer, about Wilson’s age, stops a black motorist (which may have been an illegal stop). The motorist gets out. Officer Sean Groubert tells him to get his registration and insurance. Motorist Levar Jones leans into the car to get the documents. At least point, Groubert literally goes ballistic, yelling at Jones to get on the ground and firing off multiple shots at close range.

Look at the video and the context and the history and I don’t think anyone believes that absent that video Groubert would have testified that Jones made a sudden move to grab something out of his car and Groubert suspected he had a gun. Groubert actually told Jones that when he was writhing on the ground beneath him. And at a basic level I think he believed it.

It’s horrible and awful and just plain crazy. But when I watched the video, what struck me most was that Groubert really did seem to believe that he was in mortal danger, that Jones was reaching into his car, even though Groubert had just told him to do that. You only have to watch the video once to know Groubert never should have been a cop, none of the coolness you need to navigate all sorts of situations a police officer has to handle routinely.

What I didn’t see were signs of racial animus from Groubert. What I saw was someone prone to panic and someone who almost certainly saw any black man doing something even slightly unpredicted as inherently dangerous, in this case an immediate danger to him.

Obviously, Groubert is not Wilson. Two different parts of the country. Different incidents. But in making sense of this for myself, I sense there may be a similarity. One major difference is there’s no camera – something that would have been preferable for whoever is telling the truth of what happened. As I said, maybe Wilson was just checking every box to convince the jury that he reasonably felt he was in danger and acted accordingly. Maybe Brown, difficult as that is to square with what we know about Brown, was just wildly aggressive and enraged from the start. But I sense here that some of Wilson’s actual perceptions are creeping through in this part of the testimony. And I think they’re a good clue, at least a part of the puzzle (perhaps most of the puzzle) as to how and why things went so terribly wrong.

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