For some, Thanksgiving break was not so restful: In the wake of the St. Louis County grand jury decision not to indict Police Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, thousands took to the street in protest.
Hands up, angry citizens cried out against what they saw as a miscarriage of justice—an unarmed teenager had been shot and killed, and his assassin would not be brought to trial. Though Brown’s case is now effectively closed, it could have significant ramifications for American society. We hope it will, and that the response to Brown’s death will effect lasting change in the way police officers deal with race and with unarmed suspects.
The legalities of the matter remain murky, even with thousands of pages of testimony made public. But, though it is difficult to cast judgment on the Ferguson grand jury’s decision without having heard and seen all its members heard and saw, it is possible to examine certain aspects of its process.
As others have described, instead of recommending an indictment in the typical manner, the St. Louis County prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch presented to the jury all available testimony and evidence and suggested they make the decision on their own. McCulloch also refused to recuse himself from the case after some questioned his family ties to the police force. Whether McCulloch’s actions did not or did not conform to the lawful proceedings of a trial, the unorthodox way in which the grand jury reviewed Brown’s case cast doubt on the verdict’s validity in the minds of civilians, lessening the chance of fruitful public discussion about the issue.
In the place of such discussion have come riots, and they, too, have been handled with a lack of the care a situation as delicate as Brown’s killing deserves. McCulloch chose to announce the grand jury’s decision at 8:30 p.m., when darkness had fallen over Ferguson. That, along with the failure to deploy sufficient National Guard troops to contain the ensuing unrest, did more to hurt than to help keep Ferguson’s streets safe.
These were errors, but what happens in their wake could right wrongs more deeply entrenched in our national culture. Police departments should increase training to discourage racial profiling, and they should also institute other measures to monitor their officers. These could include body cameras to increase accountability, as well as stricter rules for when to use a weapon on an unarmed assailant (shooting at one 153 feet away, for example, should be expressly forbidden). If local police departments fall short of the task, the Justice Department should take action and apply pressure.
Brown’s shooting was a tragedy, and the hearts it broke are unlikely to heal in the near future. Change, too, will only come with great effort and even more time. But it is effort worth exerting and time worth spending. Every day, another life is at stake.