In a blog I wrote two weeks ago, "Justice...not 'Just Us'," I asserted, "Our lives are constituted by relationships. The question is, 'what is the nature of these relationships?'" I also asserted, "Exploitative relationships result in situations of 'just us' rather than justice."
As I sat listening to Robert P. McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor, return the grand jury's verdict of no indictment against officer Wilson for the fatal shooting of "Mr. Brown," I kept waiting to hear comments regarding how or why officer Wilson was justified in firing several shots at an unarmed teenager.
After spending several minutes complaining about the news coverage and the use of social media, the county prosecutor began detailing the inconsistency of eyewitness testimony and the reliability of "physical and scientific evidence." It was obvious at the outset that the prosecutor was setting the stage for the grand jury's verdict by discrediting any and all witness accounts that suggested Michael Brown was surrendering or had his hands up before being shot several times by officer Wilson.
While I was not surprised by the grand jury's verdict, what I found disappointing in this case and continue to find disappointing in cases like this one, is the failure to discuss the use of "excessive force" by police. While giving his prepared remarks, prosecuting attorney McCulloch made no comments regarding officer Wilson's use of deadly force against an unarmed Michael Brown.
During the question and answer session, the prosecutor made reference to "justified shootings." Considering the fact that Michael Brown was unarmed, I fail to understand how firing ten shots at Michael Brown as he approached officer Wilson was warranted, and how it qualifies as a "justified shooting."
What does it say about police training if a trained police officer feels his life is at risk because an unarmed teenager is approaching him? What does it say about police training if a "trained" police officer believes he is exercising "self-defense" by firing TEN times at an approaching unarmed teenager? And what does it say about us as a society if we accept and do not challenge a grand jury verdict that there is "no probable cause" to file ANY indictment against officer Wilson? Do we really believe there is NOTHING wrong, excessive, or even illegal when a police officer kills an unarmed teenager by firing more than ten shots at him?
When exactly does a police officer's action to subdue a suspect cross the line of what society is willing to accept? Is the notion "by any means necessary" inappropriate for some people but always appropriate for police officers? What exactly qualifies as "excessive force" for police officers, and when does that excessive force become inappropriate?
In the case of Ferguson, Missouri, the use of "excessive force" by police officers seems to far outpace the national average. According to the Washington Post, six other Ferguson officers—five current and one former—have been named in civil rights lawsuits alleging the use of excessive force.
This means 13 percent of the police department in Ferguson has faced such investigations, compared to a national average of less than one percent of all police officers as calculated by the Cato Institute's National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project. Clearly there is a history of questionable racial relationships in Ferguson, Missouri.
While I do not claim to have answers to the questions I ask here, as a biblical scholar, a professor of religion, and a tenured faculty at a liberal arts college, I feel I have a moral and professional obligation to raise such questions and to initiate critical reflection regarding what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior (especially by those in power).
In response to the grand jury's verdict, prosecutor McCulloch asserted, "Decisions on matters as serious as charging an individual of a crime simply cannot be decided on anything less than complete critical examination of all available evidence. Anything less is not justice."
I agree with attorney McCulloch regarding the importance of "critical examination." I, however, would assert that decisions on matters as serious as shooting an unarmed teenager six times, including twice in the head, cannot be decided on anything less than complete critical examination and reflection of ALL available evidence. "Anything less is not justice."
McCulloch's comment clearly reflects that he is far more concerned with what he considers to be "justice" for officer Wilson, than he is with justice for Michael Brown and the Brown family.
I'm sure I will be writing and saying more in the near future regarding my disappointment (as well as the Brown family's disappointment) over the inappropriate and violent reactions in Ferguson in response to the grand jury's decision. While I in no way support the rioting in Ferguson, Martin Luther King, Jr. once noted, "A riot is the language of the unheard," and there are many in Ferguson who not only feel unheard but who clearly have been unheard.