A FAILURE TO INDICT
Hal Pepinsky, firstname.lastname@example.org, “peacemaking” at pepinsky.blogspot.com
November 25, 2014
The conclusion reached yesterday by the grand jury not to indict Darren Wilson amounts to this: It was reasonable of Mr. Wilson to suppose that he was under continuing threat of death or serious bodily injury when he shot Michael Brown dead. All we know is that no more than 4 of 12 grand jurors concluded that Mr. Brown still presented a reasonable threat to Mr. Wilson when Mr. Wilson fired the fatal shot(s). The jurors remain anonymous, their deliberations and questions asked of prosecutors during deliberations are secrets all involved are legally obliged not to reveal. As I argued in the first chapter of my 1976 book (Crime and Conflict: A Study of Law and Society, under books at critcrim.org), belief in the fairness of jury decisions rests on being unable to show manifest bias, that is on failing to explain jurors’ decisions. That is the position taken by the prosecutor in this case. In true fairness, we have no basis for concluding anything personal about what the majority of the jurors felt or concluded. Their decision was expected a week ago or more. The deliberations must have been hard, and probably heated. I hope they rest well and somehow get to share their burden and feel safe.
Mr. Wilson’s testimony that he felt threatened is uncontradicted. So is the long history of white people like me growing up knowing black people as different, and if black, different at least, physically threatened if also big, like Mr. Brown. The tragedy of Mr. Brown’s death has aroused such anger because it reflects an underlying truth about being black and unarmed in a white world—that black folks know and feel firsthand, that we white folks can at best acknowledge among ourselves and learn better.
Policing takes prejudice to a new level, for police are trained to look for trouble, to be suspicious, to establish they are in charge of “situations,” and when they fire in fear for themselves or others, to shoot only to kill. In the forty years since I spent hundreds of hours on police patrol, I am sure that police are more estranged from the people they patrol than ever. Where nearly all-white, predominantly young officers police communities of color, it is to be expected that the police will fear, suspect, and intimidate neighborhoods they grew believing are full of dangerous people.
Practically nothing in police training introduced police to those they patrol. A remedy would be to make community orientation basic rookie police training. Out of the academy, officers would spend time in the district they would patrol first being introduced by senior partners in local community centers where they could meet residents and businesspeople personally and hear their concerns. Community and school representatives might invite them to social events, to get acquainted. It’s one idea. The point is that the problem that led Mr. Wilson to suppose an unarmed big black man threatened to kill him reflects a continuing problem of police not knowing the people they police as full human beings rather than as suspects. Today, if anything, greater reliance on technology and increased firepower have increased that distance everywhere.
Thirty years ago when a white officer shot a black football player dead in Bloomington, Indiana, where I lived and worked, I recommended that police leave all firearms secure in their cars, to be removed only on approval from a superior officer, in this case one who fired the fatal shot during a scuffle. I believed then for Denver Smith, as I do now for Mr. Wilson, that it is a danger to themselves and others for police to carry deadly arms. I am aware of the political gap between what logically could most reduce the death toll for young men of color by police on one hand, and in fact reduce the chances of officers putting themselves in positions where they, unarmed, might be shot. It would be as prudent as it is culturally unimaginable.
I have been interested to hear that the US Justice Department’s Community Relations Service has been at work in the St. Louis area. The first director of the CRS, Calvin Kytle, was a long-time friend and publisher of Paul Jesilow’s and my Myths That Cause Crime, focused on civil rights issues in the South in the mid-sixties. Communication of the kind police and their communities need is their mission. The death of Michael Brown, and the exoneration of Mr. Wilson, bring to our attention once again how ingrained the image of black dangerousness is in us white folks is, and of how militarized our police have been since the 19th century. So is the idea of police as a military force for order, impartially, without attachment to those they police. We cannot change or stop this reality in its tracks. We can recognize, as many in policing and criminology did in the late sixties and early seventies, that what can most readily change is for police and their communities to become personally acquainted, to know those they police more and fear them less, as those they police get a chance to do likewise. Whether by outreach by community leaders, or by police, getting to know one another outside street encounters is one remedy that doesn’t have to await cultural shift. Love and peace, hal