I Was Wrong, or The Retraction

12 03 2015

Having now read the Department of Justice’s report on their investigation into civil rights charges against Darren Wilson, I have to admit that I was wrong in my beliefs about the death of Michael Brown. The report clearly lays out the physical and forensic evidence along with the eyewitness testimony, clearly specifying where the witnesses contradict known facts (and, in many cases, their own statements), as well as where their accounts match the evidence. Taken as a whole, the evidence supports Officer Wilson’s account, and I believe that he acted in good faith. I’ve seen at least one writer on the left put forth the idea that the report doesn’t exonerate Wilson, but by my reading, that’s just not true. Maybe they mean that the report doesn’t specifically say “Officer Wilson definitely acted reasonably and did absolutely nothing wrong,” but that was never its intent. It says (repeatedly) that no evidence supports an assertion that Wilson broke the law or that he acted unreasonably. That’s as close to an exoneration as it was ever going to come, and I think it’s fair to say that he came out clean. It’s important that we recognize and own up to instances where we were wrong, and I was in this one.

With that said…

…it is important to remember that the circumstances of Brown’s death don’t change the fact that there is a clear and prevalent pattern of racial bias in policing throughout the country, and that we’ve seen far too many questionable deaths of unarmed (or armed with toy or pellet gun) black men (and children) at the hands of police. I don’t believe that every cop (or any cop) involved in these incidents is a racist with a deep animus against the black community. I never believed that was true of Darren Wilson, for instance. I do believe, however, that a gulf of distrust has formed between the police and the communities they serve, and that an often unconscious portion of that distrust has a strong racial component. We’ve seen instances of unquestionably armed white men, even those behaving in an irrationally belligerent manner, handled with kid gloves and frequently allowed to go on their way, while black men with pellet guns have been shot down within seconds of being confronted by police, with scarcely an opportunity to react. It can be argued that this is an apples-and-oranges comparison, as it doesn’t involve the same cops in the same communities, but given widespread accounts of completely innocent black men being treated like hardened criminals and even severely beaten (or worse) throughout the country and in the complete absence of provocation or evidence, I think it’s reasonable to say that the problem extends well beyond one or two locales. We’ve heard stories of black college professors, lawyers, and even off-duty police officers being handled violently for absolutely no reason – there is a problem, and it is not diminished by the fact that Officer Darren Wilson did not behave unreasonably.

I haven’t read the DOJ’s report on the Ferguson Police Department yet, though I’ve heard that issues of bias and bigotry were found to exist within it. Similarly, I haven’t read the interim report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, but I have heard a few of the recommendations and the general thrust that efforts need to be made to repair the loss of trust that flows in both directions between the police and the public. As President Obama pointed out, improved trust isn’t just about making the public feel safer – it makes the police safer and makes their jobs easier, as a community that trusts the police is more likely to play an active role in assisting investigations. In the DOJ report on Brown’s death, several witnesses expressed distrust of the police and an unwillingness to help them. In a community with a healthy police-public relationship, that wouldn’t be an issue.

What’s more, there seems to be a widespread and oft-expressed belief that racism is truly over and no longer needs to be discussed. That is laughable, and I really hope that the emergence of the truth of Michael Brown’s death doesn’t serve to further delay the deep and serious conversations about race that we as a country have needed to have for so very many years.




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