Ferguson Prosecutor, Police Bellicosity and a Police Shootings Database


No, I have not yet reached optimal Ferguson fatigue. It’s a compelling story with a wide array of points worth discussing. There are three areas of discussion I want to embark upon with this next discussion about the events in Ferguson. One is something of a new angle on what’s happening (or rather what will or won’t happen), the second covers similar territory as other pieces, but with a heavier focus on the “bellicosity.” Bellicosity is the word of the day; it’s fun to say, isn’t? The third is something I’ve only mentioned in passing and probably was lost in the rapidly evolving events and details over the last week and a half.

Let’s start with the Ferguson prosecutor presiding over the Michael Brown shooting and death case. From NBC News:

Overseeing possible charges in the shooting death of the unarmed teen falls on St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch, a Missouri native whose police officer father was killed in the line of duty when McCulloch was 12.

McCulloch’s mother, brother, uncle and cousin also worked for the St. Louis police department. Those close family ties to the police — and a bellwether decision 14 years ago not to prosecute two cops who shot and killed two suspects in a drug bust — have raised doubts about his objectivity in deciding whether Ferguson, Missouri, officer Darren Wilson should be prosecuted for the Aug. 9 killing of Brown, 18.

Obviously, Brown’s family and lawyers think a conflict of interest is at play here. But then there’s this account from those that know him:

Those who know McCulloch personally don’t have concerns about his role in the case, or his ability to overcome obstacles: McCulloch had his leg amputated at the hip when he was 17 due to a rare bone cancer. Matt Selby, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said that in the decade that he has known McCulloch, he’s witnessed a prosecutor with “integrity, experience. He’s strong in his convictions about what’s right and wrong.”

As Angela Davis points out in The New Republic there is an inherent conflict of interest:

Police officers don’t technically work for prosecutors, but they are definitely part of the prosecution team. They investigate the cases, gather the evidence, and testify as witnesses for the state. Without police officers, prosecutors can’t bring cases or secure convictions. So prosecutors have an inherent conflict of interest when they are considering charges against police officers.

Add in that police officers rarely face a courtroom, the benefit of the doubt often given to police officers by prosecutors, juries and so on, and his family ties to the police, I can see why people are skeptical. I’m not saying McCulloch does present a conflict of interest beyond the aforementioned inherent one or that he will purposefully try to help Wilson “get off” for killing Brown; I’m just putting it out there to consider. Because it is there.

Now to switch gears, check out this video below from the streets of Ferguson:

The officer there is clearly pointing his gun at a member of the media and saying, “I will fucking kill you.” There’s no ambiguity here. But check it:

St. Louis County Police spokesman Brian Schellman told Mashable:

“On Tuesday, August 19, 2014, shortly before midnight, an incident occurred wherein a St. Ann police officer pointed a semi-automatic assault rifle at a peaceful protestor after a verbal exchange,” Schellman wrote in an email. (St. Ann is a St. Louis suburb not far from Ferguson.) “It was at this time a St. Louis County police sergeant walked over and immediately took action, forcing the officer to lower the weapon, and escorting him away from the area.”

Swift justice there, right? Such bellicosity, though. I’m not characterizing that particular officer’s attitude as being the case for all officers everywhere. Yet again, however, it’s worth pointing out that when you blur the lines between the police and the military, when you dress the police like the military, when you outfit them with “toys” like the military and when you recruit like the military, you’re going to attract a certain type of person. Even a police chief from Florida on CNN last night suggested a similar sentiment in saying that some people just like to kill and they end up on the police force.

At the same time, it’s merely possible this officer in question just reacted poorly in a stressful situation. We shouldn’t judge him too harshly, I suppose, right? Well. I get the stress, but again, as I keep reiterating in many of these pieces, I understand that officers are human just like us, but they are wearing the badge and holding the gun for a reason. If you’re so stressed that you’re pointing a big-ass gun at a member of the media and threatening to kill them, then it’s for the best that you’re relieved of your duty. Of course, if a citizen had done similarly, they’d be charged, I’d imagine…

We can thank the ACLU of Missouri for this action.


Law enforcement team this past winter in Fargo, North Dakota (Michael Vosburg, Fargo Forum)

Before I even continue with this short musing on police militarization, can you not see the absurdity already inherent in that picture? They’re wearing camouflage in the winter. With snow around. That’s not exactly blending in to your surroundings. So, what’s the point of the camo? An attempt at intimidation? More like silly.

Anyway, The Atlantic was just musing about how bringing such camo to a protest helps escalate it into a riot. Then they presented this particular dichotomous musing I found enlightening:

Think about it: in the eyes of American state power, teaching Mike Brown makes the teacher immediately suspect and open to public sanction based on Mike Brown’s test scores. Shooting Mike Brown in the street and leaving his body uncovered for four hours makes Mike Brown automatically suspect in the eyes of state power.

A camera provides for police the holy grail that education reformers seek for teachers—the ultimate evidence of policing quality. How would such evidence have changed what happened in Ferguson?

If there had been a cop cam on Officer Darren Wilson there’d be no debating what occurred. We’d know. Hell, even if there had been a dash camera in Wilson’s SUV, we’d at least have gotten some hopefully beneficial audio to help with the investigation and accounting of what occurred.


The third area I wanted to touch upon is the database for tracking police abuse. As I’ve mentioned before, a 1994 law made it mandatory to collect data on officer-involved shootings, but there was no way to enforce it or collect the data from all the state and local policies. Therefore, our data on officer-involved shootings is woefully incomplete and inconsistent. In a democratic and free society, not knowing how often the police kill us — whether justified or not — is problematic for obvious reasons. With 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the country, it seems almost insurmountable to find a way to track this data in a cohesive way to present to the public.

Deadspin in particular is embarking upon compiling a database of police shootings. In a sense, they are crowd-sourcing it; they are seeking our help with these guidelines:

    • Using Google’s search tools, isolate a single day (e.g. Jan. 1, 2011, to Jan. 1, 2011) and search for the term “police involved shooting” (don’t use quotation marks). Use Chrome’s Incognito mode when searching to ensure you aren’t getting local results.
    • Read each link on the first 10 pages of results; for any instances of shootings involving a police officer, log them in the spreadsheet.
    • There are tabs for each year we’re looking at—2011, 2012, and 2013. Columns for date, name, age, gender, race/ethnicity, hit/killed, armed/unarmed, city, county, state, a brief summary, and a link to a story about the incident are to be filled out as best as possible given the information in all stories about the incident.
    • There are 100 rows set up per month, so slide in and work on a day that no one else seems to have claimed.
    • Often, the first day of reports will not have personal details, and a second search of subsequent days will fill in more of the story.
    • A later death, after a person is hospitalized in a police-involved shooting, is considered a death for our purposes.
    • We are looking for any incidence of a police officer shooting and hitting another person.
    • We are not looking for incidences of police officers discharging their weapons and hittingno one. In a perfect world these would be tracked, since often the only difference is that the shot missed, but these incidents are not as thoroughly reported and would probably bias the data.
    • Please keep the data as neat as possible. Work within specific months, make sure you’re in the correct year, keep the columns clean and add peripheral information in the Summary portion, etc.

This is just a terrific idea and I’m excited to see them launching it and what will come of it, as it goes along here. Here’s a link to their Google Spreadsheet, which already has numerous bits of information complied.

Now, Deadspin isn’t the first to embark upon this quite difficult endeavor. The Cato Institute, the largest libertarian think tank, keeps a database of sorts for police abuse and shootings here. For instance, they have a National Police Misconduct Newsfeed Daily Recap with tidbits all over the country regarding the police, such as an office resigning after his driver’s license expired or one was arrested in a prostitution sting. And so on.

It just boggles my mind that we do not have an accurate and reliable way to know how often the arm of the government kills us.

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