A grand jury in Missouri has ruled. There will be no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
That conclusion to an extended grand jury session comes as something of a surprise, despite some predictions that no indictment would be handed up. Details of the shooting are in dispute. The officer's account differs from that of some eyewitnesses. The forensic evidence of gunshot angles and wounds seems to support the officer's version, but it still seemed to leave room for charges less than first-degree murder — manslaughter, perhaps, based on a contention that the officer used excessive force to fend off the larger but unarmed teenager.
The death of an unarmed teenager is tragic and appalling, but what followed the grand jury decision is nearly as appalling, more destructive and less excusable. Thousands of protesters took to the streets in a rampage of destruction, throwing rocks at police, torching a car, breaking store windows, burning buildings and looting businesses. Those who lost their property to the rampage were not responsible for the shooting or for the grand jury decision. Their only offense was owning property. Some have charged that the more violent protesters were not Ferguson residents but had come from far away to take advantage of the rage in Ferguson.
Shootings of unarmed people by police is all-too-common in America. These incidents must be prevented through better police training, changes in attitude and culture and improvements in mutual respect. Violent riots do not improve the situation.
One aspect of this shooting follows a familiar pattern. Initial descriptions of the shooting victim, Michael Brown, portrayed him as a sweet, lovable teen who wouldn't hurt a fly. Subsequently, surveillance video showed him shoplifting and then physically threatening and shoving a much smaller store clerk. The autopsy showed he had been consuming marijuana. None of this justifies the shooting, but it should remind news consumers that not everyone who is the victim of a suspicious police shooting or who is accused of a crime is sweet and innocent. Exaggerations of the victim's character are no more helpful than exaggerations of the shooter's character or perception of danger.
An addendum to my post:
I have since read testimony given by Officer Darren Wilson, who says the teen who attacked him ran away after he fired shots from inside his vehicle. Wilson then chased him, and the teen stopped, turned and came toward him. Wilson shot him from several feet away, firing the fatal shot into his head as the teen fell to the ground.
While I think it is dangerous to second-guess a grand jury, or any jury, I find it hard to understand why Wilson's actions were not considered excessive force. With the suspect running from him, Wilson was in no immediate danger. The final, fatal shot was fired after the suspect was seriously wounded and likely incapable of further resistance. An indictment for assault or involuntary manslaughter might have given a jury an opportunity to judge the actions of both Wilson and Brown.
Nevertheless, none of this justifies the wanton destruction perpetrated by mobs of protesters last night. Brown's own father appealed for the public to avoid violence and keep any protests peaceful. This destructiveness sullies Brown's memory.