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Darren Wilson Probably Wasn't Even the Worst Cop in Ferguson

A long 'New Yorker' profile offers us a glimpse into the world of the man who shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown this time last year. The former cop styles himself something of a tragic figure.

by Matt Taylor
Aug 3 2015, 8:30pm

By now, almost every single person in America has an opinion about Darren Wilson. The white, 29-year-old former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown—setting in motion a chain of anger and protests that led to the Black Lives Matter Movement—a year ago this month. Wilson's encounter with Brown has been dissected endlessly by everyone from Facebook commenters to cable news talking heads to the Justice Department (which did not bring charges against the cop after an investigation). But in the months after the shooting, Wilson has essentially been in hiding, even as he became a symbol for the worst sort of police brutality and racism.

Now a long New Yorker profile offers us a glimpse into his world. In interviews Wilson gave writer Jake Halpern, the former cop styles himself a persecuted man and something of a tragic figure. Writes Halpern:

During our conversations, Wilson typically sat in a recliner, holding his baby daughter, who was born in March. He said that, after Brown's death, people "had made threats about doing something to my unborn child." Wilson, a former Boy Scout with round cheeks and blue eyes, speaks with a muted drawl. When Barb went to the hospital to give birth, he said, "I made her check in anonymously."

Wilson said that he had interviewed for a few police positions but had been told that he would be a liability. "It's too hot an issue, so it makes me unemployable," he said. He tried not to brood about it: "I bottle everything up."

The baby has helped Wilson, who also has two stepsons, accept the constrictions of his current situation. It has also allowed him to maintain a pointed distance from the furor that the shooting helped to unleash. He told me that he had not read the Justice Department's report on the systemic racism in Ferguson. "I don't have any desire," he said. "I'm not going to keep living in the past about what Ferguson did. It's out of my control."

At the same time, WIlson says stuff that sounds like veiled racism, like when he laments the gang-banging ways of inner-city urban types—a.k.a. blacks—and parenting that lets them off the hook. Sometimes it's not even veiled, as is the case in the most damning part of the piece:

At one point, I asked Wilson if he missed walking outside and going to restaurants. He told me that he still ate out, but only at certain places. "We try to go somewhere—how do I say this correctly?—with like-minded individuals," he said. "You know. Where it's not a mixing pot."

But whatever Wilson is, he's not uniquely racist or evil, or even the main problem in Ferguson. "Darren was probably the best officer that I've ever trained—just by his willingness to learn," Mike McCarthy, a 39-year-old, gay Irish-American cop who stands by Wilson, told Halpern.

The most shocking details in the New Yorker piece aren't even about Wilson, but about the environment in which he was policing. Cops in the so-called "North County"—the worst-off and most forlorn areas in St. Louis County—apparently made as little as $10 an hour, and police cadets in America often receive as little as eight hours of training in de-escalation tactics, compared with 58 hours on how to use their guns. Wilson wrongly told a white man he interrogated in 2013 that the man did not have the right to film their encounter, and admitted to Halpern that he simply did not know the letter of the law Ferguson cops used to arrest people for "failure to comply" with their commands.

Some Black Lives Matter activists have criticized the New Yorker for humanizing and empathizing with the man who killed Brown. While Halpern certainly doesn't shy away from criticizing Wilson (and sometimes lets the subject hang himself, as in the "mixing pot" comment), the profile does, at times, tell the story of Ferguson, Brown's death, and the aftermath from Wilson's perspective. Even in that version of events, Wilson is hardly a hero, but it's clear that police officers like him are both a symptom and a cause of the racism that the US has been dealing with since before the Revolutionary War.

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