"The Struggle Doesn’t End:" Leak Reveals DOJ Not Likely to Charge Darren Wilson
The purpose of leaks by “credible sources” is to manage expectations for the public. So the leak indicating that the Department of Justice will likely not pursue federal civil rights charges against Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown is likely a trial balloon to see how the public will react.
I hope that one of those reactions is a demand for police reforms across the board, imposed not only from the top down but also from within.
Justice – which we believe embodies accountability, blame, the restoration of equality, and a repair to some awful wrong between the aggrieved and the aggressor – loses its meaning in circumstances like this. Darren Wilson will probably never have to publicly account for his actions. And this may be a singular setback for the Brown family, even if they can steel themselves to pursue a civil suit for the wrongful death of their son .
We all had grander hopes for US attorney general Eric Holder and Civil Rights Division of the DOJ – among them, that they would resolve our lingering questions from the August shooting that set off 168 days of continuous protests in Ferguson and nationwide. In past high profile cases, DOJ was able to secure convictions for the LA cops who beat Rodney King and the NYPD officers who assaulted Abner Louima – although both these men lived to tell their side of the story. And we had a lot of grand hopes for this administration. Holder’s hands-on approach and his initiatives to address mass incarceration and commutations of sentences for nonviolent offenders offered promise, yet remain unfulfilled.
There were murmurs as early as late August – shortly after the DOJ announced a separate investigation – that it would always end up this way. The way the law is crafted creates a pretty steep burden for the federal government to prove that Wilson knowingly violated Brown’s civil rights, and that he did so with malice when he shot Brown at least six times, including two shots to the head. Intent is hard to prove because of optics of the shooting – black body, blue uniform. All a police officer has to say is I stopped a fleeing suspect and I feared for my life, as we already saw in the officer-involved killings of Garner, Crawford,Hunt and Hamilton that resulted in zero indictments.
I don’t know the depth of the disappointment Leslie McSpadden or Michael Brown Sr must feel, nor that of some of the activists and protesters in Ferguson who have fought so long for justice for Brown and for us all. I do hope that they remain resolved in their efforts to push their community – and by extension, our society – for sweeping reforms in every level of our legal system. The story doesn’t end here. The struggle doesn’t end here.
Traditionally, we look to the federal government to be the intercessor, the deliverer of equitable justice where states and municipalities fail. Reforms in the 21st century must be more meaningful than lip service and scrambling by municipalities facing federal oversight. It really means doing and being the things you said you’re going to do and be: train your police in non-racist practices; recruit people to reflect the plurality of your community; find alternative revenue streams for your municipality that don’t exploit your most vulnerable citizens.
There is some comfort in knowing that the Justice Department’s wider investigation of police practices in the St. Louis County area is ongoing. And we’ve got good reason to find faith in this effort. In 2012, the Justice Department began a 16-month long investigation of the Albuquerque Police Department , and last summer, DOJ and the city of Albuquerque reached an agreement on a set of police reforms; Wednesday, they named a DOJ monitor to oversee the reforms.
The Justice Department reached a similar accord with Cleveland days after the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice. DOJ’s investigation of the Cleveland PD and mandated reforms would have been pivotal. It could have meant relieving Timothy Loehmann of duty before he could even pull the trigger ending Rice’s short life.
The struggle between theory and practice comes into play here for me. I believe in the rule of law, though I know it’s applied inequitably. And yet, I don’t want to imagine what it means when we can’t look to the federal government to fix systemic abuses when the law falls short of justice. My faith in the law, as it’s applied in theory, is too strong for me to want to consider any alternative.
I question the mindset of people who apply the law; I challenge them to be mindful of biases and aware of structural inequalities. That blind spot is where we see patterns of abuse that inevitably require federal intervention.
The feds may be able to compel corrections for St Louis County, but they’d likely have to begin inquests in nearly every municipality to root out all the injustice. We can hope that the scrutiny that Albuquerque and Cleveland have endured will be a signal to other municipalities to preemptively address their patterns of abuse, and directly deal with issues of racism internally.
But is it too late? Last week, a Florida family discovered that a mugshot of their child and other black men were being used as targets to train police officers. How does a police administrator account for that? How do you fix a culture that allows that?
Apologizing isn’t enough. A ban of the use of those images for target practice is a step in the right direction, but a placebo. For officials to claim that this was an error in policy or judgment and not recognize the racism at work is disingenuous. Police managers must address racism from within their departments if they want to maintain our trust.
We’re still watching and waiting. But we won’t do either silently any more.