The grand jury voted not to charge Officer Darren Wilson for shooting dead 18-year-old Michael Brown on Ferguson streets, in an incident that has manifested outrage over police brutality, and particularly harsh treatment aimed at African Americans that has culminated in the deaths of a growing list of unarmed young black men at police hands.
The outcome was announced late Monday night by St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch as part of a 20-minute statement, during which he lambasted the influence of social media and called the 24-hour news cycle “the most significant challenge” in this investigation.
The decision not to indict Wilson means he won’t face the possibility of criminal charges unless they come from the federal government or a new indictment. It also means he may never have to face a full, public trial to determine is guilt or innocence. In the moments leading up the announcement, Brown’s attorney Daryl Parks said all his clients want is a fair, public trial. A statement from the Brown family said while they are “profoundly disappointed” that they don’t want to just “make noise,” but “make a difference” starting with calling for a body camera on every police officer in the country.
The grand jury’s decision won’t surprise most police brutality watchers; accountability of any sort is rare for police, and criminal accountability rarer still. Nonetheless, crowds of protesters gathered outside Tuesday night were prepared to express their outrage, in what Gov. Jay Nixon anticipated earlier that day would be peaceful demonstrations.
In the days leading up to the verdict, protesters and even journalists were once again arrested outside police headquarters, as police revived the use of pepper spray. Gov. Jay Nixon prepared to call in all-out force to respond to riots, readying as many as 1,000 members of the National Guard. The St. Louis County Police Department has also spent $172,669 on new riot gear since the militarized police reaction to post-shooting protests sparked national attention, according to the Guardian.
Since the encounter, details have slowly leaked out. Just last week, the St. Louis Dispatch learned from police records and interviews that the encounter lasted just 90 seconds. According to those records, police stopped Brown because he and his friends were walking in the middle of the street, but when they got close to him they saw that he looked like a suspect in a convenience store theft earlier that day.
This is where the stories diverged. Wilson claimed Brown attacked him, and that the two struggled over his gun until Wilson grabbed it and shot Brown one time. He says Brown then ran away, Wilson chased him, and Brown turned around and charged at him, prompting Wilson to fire again. Witnesses present some other accounts. His friend who was with him, Dorian Johnson, says Wilson was the aggressor, pulling Brown by the neck while still in his car and then shooting Brown as he tried to pull away. He said Wilson fired multiple other times as Brown tried to run away, including as he had his back to him, and as he surrendered. Several witnesses say Brown even had his hands up in surrender, prompting the refrain “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”
A tweet from one witness to the shooting was sent just 61 seconds after dispatchers reported that Wilson had stopped Brown and Johnson.
But the shooting of Michael Brown was about more than the facts of that day for residents in Ferguson and the surrounding St. Louis County. The incident exposed deep-seated feelings of racism and mistreatment, exacerbated by a response to the incident that included a shocking militarized police presence, and the release of information about Brown that took aim at his character — that he had been a suspect in a convenience store theft and had marijuana in his system — without any real information about what occurred that day, and what prompted Wilson to deploy his gun.
In other preparations for the announcement, local businesses boarded up store windows with wood and clergy are training to act as peacekeepers in the event of civil unrest. Churches are also preparing to hand out food to children who participate in free or reduced-price lunch programs at school, in the event that schools close.
Today’s verdict was the result of a case built by St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch. Many had called for the replacement of McCulloch in Brown’s case, citing his connections to the law enforcement community and a father who was killed by a black man with a gun. But McCulloch is not unique in having strong ties to the police community. That’s why police reform proposals have included calls for special prosecutors whose offices are detached from the biases of the jurisdiction’s office to handle cases of police misconduct.
Experts pointed out that McCulloch’s decision to present all of the evidence against Brown during a grand jury proceeding was unusual, and might skew the jurors toward opting not to indict. McCulloch defended his decision during his remarks Monday night, saying he opted to present all evidence gathered because of concerns in the community that the investigation “might not be full and fair.”
The fact remains that police are rarely held accountable for brutality on the job, if limited anecdotal and local data is any indication. A 2005 Los Angeles Times review, for example, found that just 3 out of 314 cases of alleged excessive force in the prior four years led to criminal charges. In New York, despite many fatal shootings, not one officer was convicted of homicide for an on-the-job shooting between 1977 and 1995. And in the Atlanta area, a spokesperson for the Fulton County District Attorney told Human Rights Watch he could only recall three instances of police officers being charged for anything at all over a five-year period.
Still, Wilson is likely to be held more accountable than many officers. The Ferguson Police Chief says he is unlikely to get his job backThis is a developing story. This post will be updated with additional information.