What Happened To Michael Brown Is Not Much In Dispute
The conventional wisdom at the moment about the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri two weeks ago is that no one really knows what happened, and that the narratives conflict greatly depending on who you ask.
The conventional wisdom is bull. We actually know just about every relevant fact. All that is meaningfully in dispute is the interpretation of those facts. Although Officer Wilson’s official account of what happened that
FridaySaturday has not been released, his fellow officers and friends have – often anonymously – released quite a bit of his side of the story. We obviously also know the accounts of several civilian eyewitnesses, whose accounts sparked the protests that have been raging for nearly two weeks. Last but not least, we know the partial independent autopsy results prepared by Michael Baden, who indicated that Michael Brown suffered a total of six bullet wounds, all to the front of his body, except for one to the crown of the teenager’s head. Stripped of interpretation and spin, there is in fact a remarkable amount of symmetry between the various accounts. What emerges from these undisputed facts is an officer who had no moral right to use deadly force.
1. Several minutes before encountering Officer Wilson, Michael Brown stole a $50 box of cigars from a nearby convenience store, a crime, yes, but a crime that many teenagers commit. In the process, Brown was caught by the shopkeeper and pushed the shopkeeper out of his way. Again, a poor decision by Brown, but hardly something that makes him stand out as a uniquely horrible teenager. Brown was neither armed nor ever alleged to have been armed during this theft.
2. After leaving a “sick call,” Officer Wilson spotted Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson walking in the middle of the road and ordered them to get on the sidewalk.
3. Brown refused, and he and Johnson exchanged words with Officer Wilson.
4. The police claim that at this point in time Wilson became aware that Johnson and Brown matched the description of the suspects in the convenience store theft a few minutes earlier, though the police acknowledge Wilson was unaware of that theft at the time he began confronting Brown and Johnson. This claim may be corroborated somewhat by Johnson’s statement that Officer Wilson pulled away for a few seconds before putting the car in reverse and returning, supposedly almost hitting Brown and Johnson with his car in the process. There are nonetheless some reasons for skepticism about the claim that Wilson became aware of the theft at this point, not least of which is that the police said nothing about the theft until nearly a week later. However, this allegation has not been rebutted, so for our purposes we can take it as true.
5. Herein occurs the one truly disputed fact. Johnson claims that after backing up, Wilson reached through his window and grabbed Brown, while the police claim that Wilson attempted to exit his car but was pushed back into it by Brown, who proceeded to reach for Wilson’s gun.
6. Regardless, there is no dispute that at this point there was a physical altercation between Wilson and Brown at the door of Wilson’s car. During this struggle, some have alleged that Officer Wilson suffered a bruised or fractured eye socket,* but this allegation has been conclusively refuted.
Reports that Ofc Darren Wilson had a bruised or fractured eye socket are false. #ferguson A source close to the investigation tells CNN
— Julian Cummings CNN (@JulianCummings) August 21, 2014
7. During this struggle, Wilson fired one shot at Brown. Both sides appear to believe that this shot struck Brown, presumably in the shoulder, although the partial autopsy results on this were inconclusive.
8. Brown then attempted to run away from Wilson as Wilson was getting out of his car.
9. While Brown was running away, Wilson fired at least one and possibly two shots after him. Although some witnesses believed that these shots struck Brown in the back, the partial autopsy results make this unlikely. Regardless, there is no dispute that Wilson fired at Brown while he was running away, and the police have conceded as much, says the New York Times: “As Officer Wilson got out of his car, the men were running away. The officer fired his weapon but did not hit anyone, according to law enforcement officials.”
10. After the missed shot or shots, Brown stopped and turned around.
11. At this time, Wilson fired up to five additional – and ultimately fatal – shots, each hitting Brown on the right side of his body, including two to the head, one of which was to the crown of Brown’s head.
Here is where there is supposedly a second disputed – and essential – fact. Johnson says that Browns hands were up in surrender – hence the “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” mantra that has characterized the protests ever since – but acknowledges that they were “not that high” and that Brown was “favoring” his shoulder from the first gunshot wound. The police claim that, rather than surrendering, Brown instead lowered his arms and was charging Officer Wilson to renew the physical altercation, making Officer Wilson fear for his life.
This dispute, however, isn’t much of a dispute. The officer’s claims are completely and utterly implausible. The officer’s claims not only contradict several eyewitnesses, but also require us to believe that, after being shot once during the physical struggle, (a) consciously decided to run away (which is most certainly the case); but then (b) in the midst of continuing to be shot at while running away and with a bullet wound in his shoulder, decided that he should turn around and physically assault with his one good arm the very person who had just shot him and was still firing at him. Brown is not alleged to have a history of mental illness, nor is he alleged to have been drunk or high on any of the types of drugs that might induce such aggressive behavior.
In the alternative, we are asked to believe only that he realized the indisputable facts that the officer was still shooting at him and that the officer could almost certainly outrun him (especially with Brown’s shoulder wound) such that continuing to run would have been a good way of ensuring that the officer continued to shoot at him (and eventually would hit him again). If we assume he knew these two indisputable facts, his only logical response at that point would have been to stop, turn around, and surrender.
I’m willing to concede that the officer could have, in the heat of the moment, perceived Brown stopping and turning around as signalling a desire to resume physical contact. I do not think we could call this perception “reasonable,” though. What’s more, that the officer was indisputably shooting at a fleeing suspect should be the end of the story – that alone is unacceptable, and it makes it frankly impossible to believe that the only reason for firing the fatal final 5 shots was his belief that Brown was coming back to charge him. Brown was not believed to have been armed (indeed, the officer’s claim that Brown was reaching for his gun during the struggle strongly suggests that the officer knew that Brown was unarmed) or to have presented a danger to the community, so once the struggle at the police car ended, there was no reason to use deadly force.
Simply put, there’s no reason to believe Wilson would have stopped firing at Brown if Brown had kept running, and there’s no reason to believe that those shots would have been any less fatal. There’s thus no reason to distinguish the fatal five shots from the earlier shot or shots that missed, regardless of whether Wilson can reasonably claim that he thought Brown was getting ready to charge him. Whether this is enough to charge or convict Wilson in a court of law, I don’t know and don’t pretend to know, as police are given a depressing amount of leeway to use deadly force. What I do know is that there is every reason in the world to be angry at the killing of yet another young black man at the hands of the police.
*The original source for this allegation appears to have been Jim Hoft, whose site I shall not deign to link.
[N/B – I originally posted the second half of this analysis in the comments here]