Officer Darren Wilson may be innocent – but that doesn’t let cops off the hook

The official autopsy report suggests that 18-year-old Michael Brown likely did struggle with Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson in the minutes before Brown’s death on August 6. Several witness also reportedly back up Wilson’s version of events, according to The Washington Post.

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Whether the shooting of Brown by Wilson was justified or not, it’s important to remember that there were good reasons people distrusted the Ferguson police’s narrative of events.

Police did everything wrong after Brown was killed. They left his body in the street, they refused to answer questions or identify the officer. They used military tech to answer the protests that resulted. They repeatedly teargassed crowds, arresting peaceful protesters and members of the media.

Officer Darren Wilson shouldn’t be punished for the impression that people — especially minorities — have of the police. If he doesn’t deserve prosecution, he shouldn’t be prosecuted. Whether he deserves harsh, little, or no punishment is still up for debate.

However, this story was always about more than Brown. Brown was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of frustration over police. For a solid week, the dominant news story in the country was what had gone wrong with police in America.

That was a good thing, and the criticisms raised should not be walked back simply because the story is not as cut-and-dried as it sounded two months ago to those willing to believe the worst about police.

Nor should the cries of folks accusing the police, and the courts of being racist be ignored.

According to Gallup, 37 percent of black people have “a great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in police. That figure is at 59 percent for whites. The disparity echoes the fact that the prison population is 36 percent black when only 14 percent of people in the U.S. are black.

No-knock, or just SWAT raids deployed after some informant whispers about drugs are also a danger across the racial and ethnic spectrum. Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported that SWAT teams were deployed for minority suspects 60 percent of the time.

The fallout from these raids can create problems of basic fairness.

On October 21, Mother Jones’ Shane Bauer noted two Texas SWAT raids from the past year which ended in dead police officers.

Henry Magee fatally shot one of the deputies who came to his trailer door in a December 2013 no-knock raid. Magee pleaded self defense, and his lawyer highlighted the proof of Magee’s assumption that the intruders were criminals, not police. The usual bad policies in SWAT raids were present and accounted for, adding credence to that defense. It was 5:30 am, Magee was jolted awake, and his pregnant girlfriend was with him.

A grand jury declined to indict him for capital murder, even though a prosecutor had already brought those charges. He still faced felony drug charges, but that might just feel like sweet relief compared to what could have been him fighting for his life.

The other case, about a hundred miles away in Killeen: It was about 5:30 am in May, and Marvin Guy fired his weapon at what might have appeared to be intruders, killing one police officer and injuring one other.

He was arrested and charged with capital murder. A grand jury indicted him in June. No drugs were found, just so-called paraphernalia.

Guy is black, and Magee is white, but this might not be as tidy a case of racial bias as the Mother Jones suggests. Both men had arrest records but Guy’s is longer and more serious. Magee had a high-profile lawyer on his case, charismatically proclaiming his client’s innocence to the press (including me). Guy doesn’t seem to have the same.

Certainly, the grand juries are party to information the public and the media do not possess. And yet, it looks to the world as if awful police tactics were equally applied, but only the white guy got to successfully claim self-defense.

There are other raids to compare: young black Mississippi father Cory Maye was initially put on death row for his killing a cop during a drug raid. He was freed after ten years in prison, thanks in great part to the efforts of journalist Radley Balko.

White Virginian Ryan Frederick is still serving ten years for fatally shooting a cop during a SWAT raid. It certainly could have been worse for him, and how might a black Virginia have fared?

The U.S. has had a long history of not just oppressing blacks, but denying them the right to self defense. Modern gun control was born in California when everyone was terrified of the Black Panthers’ propensity for open carrying weapons.

Conservatives have a habit of brushing off concerns about racial problems, saying that the civil rights era was won and over and done with. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) has taken a different approach and struck a better balance on the issue.

In his Time editorial in August. Paul didn’t presume to know what happened to Michael Brown, nor did he proclaim that all the problems with criminal justice in America are about race. They are myriad, and they are about federal dollars, and unaccountable police, and prisons packed full of people who committed only nonviolent crimes. But they are not not about race.

When the prisons population is so disproportionately black, that means something. When cops look like an invading army, that means something to both the police and the civilians who are supposed to be able to trust them. When the NYPD disproportionately stops and frisks blacks and Hispanics, that means something.

Again, what happened to Brown matters, but it’s not the only thing that mattered about Ferguson. It’s not that Wilson should be be jailed for each time a cop has been corrupt, racist, violent, or fired his gun too quickly. It’s just that policing needs to change.

For about a week there, everyone seemed to realize it. Let’s not forget it.

What do you think?

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