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Bad Cop Blotter

Why People Are Assuming Ferguson Cop Darren Wilson Won't Be Indicted for Killing Michael Brown

Even when officers have committed what appear to be egregious, obvious crimes, they rarely get punished.

by Lucy Steigerwald
Nov 24 2014, 2:54pm

Photo via Flickr user ​Peoples World

On August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown. Besides that basic fact, pretty much everything else is in doubt. Did Brown fight back? We he justified in doing so? Was he running away? Were his hands up, as his supporters—and several witnesses—have long been saying?

For the past three months people in Ferguson and across the nation have been arguing about these things. The town has been rocked by massive protests and  ​remain​s on edge in advance of a grand-jury verdict on whether Wilson will be indicted. The grand jury is reconvening today, but the deadline for them to decide isn't until the first week of January.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has declared a state of emergency in advance of the grand jury's decision, and everyone seems to be gearing up for potentially violent protests—in other words, we're all assuming that Wilson won't be charged with anything. That's how it goes with police shootings; even when officers have committed what appear to be egregious, obvious crimes, they rarely get punished. Think of the BART cop who shot Oscar Grant in the back of the head on New Year's Day 2009, then swore he thought he was reaching for his Taser. Johannes Mehserle spent less than two years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Or consider the fact that every cop present for the ​2011 beating death of Kelly Thomas got to go home, even Manuel Ramos, who had been charged charged with second-degree murder. 

Darrien Hunt, holding a blunt samurai sword, was shot six times in the back while running from​ cops in September. A grand jury didn't bother to indict the officer who pulled the trigger. If cops get as far as a courtroom—and that's rare—they have a 50 percent chance of not being convicted, according to ​one study of police misconduct in Washington State. But they don't usually get that far. Cops nationwide continue to have a long leash in terms ​of using deadly force. If a police officer reasonably believes someone, including himself, is being threatened, he is totally justified, the law generally says, in firing his weapons—even if he's wrong.

If Brown was running away when Wilson shot and killed him, he has less of an excuse. The Supreme Court case  ​Tennessee​ v. Garner (1985) says that cops may not shoot fleeing suspects just to stop their escape. However, according to Wilson, the two men had just fought and Brown had tried to grab his gun, making the cop's fear that Brown was a lethal threat more credible, or at least a decent legal defense strategy.

With no footage of Brown's death, and with Wilson being a cop, chances are that the grand jury won't indict him. A lot of angry people will take that decision as further proof of a fundamentally racist, corrupt power structure in Ferguson and the US. But a non-indictment won't be unusual—when the police shoot people, they generally walk away.   

Now for the rest of this week's bad cops:

–On Saturday, a 12-year​-old boy holding an Airsoft pellet gun was fatally shot by Cleveland police. On Sunday, Tamir E. Rice died after surgery. The rookie cop who shot him has yet to be identified, but he and his partner are both on administrative leave. Tamir's mother, Samaria Rice, claims police refused to let her see her son when she ran to the rec center where he had been shot. Police say that the boy did not listen when he was told to put his hands up, and then he reached for his waistband, leaving the officer no choice but to fire. The boy had an Airsoft gun with its orange safety tip removed, which led to someone calling 911—the dispatcher who took the call was told that it was "probably fake" yet did not tell the officer this important detail. Nor, it seems, did the open-carry laws of Ohio come into play.

–This is not a g​ood month for the Cleveland PD—or rather, it's not a good month for suspects they encounter: On November 13, a 37-year-old mentally ill woman was killed after scuffling with the cops. The family of Tanesa Anderson say they called police to ask for help getting Anderson a psychiatric intervention. According to the family, she passed out after police threw her on the ground. For their part the cops say Anderson struggled and suddenly lost consciousness after she was put in their cruiser car. Whether the officers were fully trained for mental-health crisis intervention is now the question, and is something the Cleveland PD has yet to confirm.

–According to a lawsuit filed by the Ho​me Scho​ol Legal Defense Association on behalf of Jason and Laura Hagan of New Hampton, Missouri, the family was subjected to an unlawf​ul police raid in September 2011. The Hagans, who homeschool their kids, had a Child Protective Service official look at their home over reports that it was "messy." They say they allowed the CPS official to look at the place, but wouldn't let them inside for a follow-up visit. CPS called in Sheriff Darren White of the Nodaway County police department and Deputy David Glidden, who were also refused access by Jason Hagan. Glidden hit both Hagans in the face with pepper spray, and Tasered Jason multiple times as Laura shut the door. Glidden and White then forced themselves into the home, pepper-sprayed the Hagans and their dog, then threatened to shoot the animal. The Hagan children were taken to the hospital to be treated for exposure to pepper spray and were reportedly taken from their parents "for months," according to​ one source. The Hagan parents were arrested and charged with child endangerment and resisting arrest, but a judge later dismissed the charges against them and found that their Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. 

–There are a lot of important questions about US Customs and Border Patrol, such as whether the agency is using the appropriate amount of force in various circ​umstances. But it's a lot more difficult to answer such questions when​ CBP puts 12,000 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in a box and neglects to answer them. According to the Government Accountability Office report, 11,000 other FOIA requests were closed incorrectly, and had to be reopened. That's some bang-up accountability.

–Cops in Orange County, Ca​lifornia, have decided to post the mugshots and names of men arrested for solicitation online. This isn't a unique practice, but in other California jurisdictions that have decided this technique of naming and shaming is a good deterrent, like Oakland and Fresno, these records are kept online only for a fortnight. However, Orange County keeps them online permanently—185 of them are on the internet right now. And as the LA Times noted, this is not part of the official punishment for solicitation, so you can't plea-bargain it away. It's just a bonus meanness.

–Our Good Cop of the Week is a New Jersey officer who responded to a 911 call on November 16. Guttenberg, New Jersey, officer Steve Pelaez arrived at a house just in time to revive a two-year-old who had fallen unconscious after choking on food and was turning blue. He was in the right place with the right training at the right time, and he saved a life—which is what the police are supposed to be doing.

Follow Lucy Steigerwald on ​Twitter.

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