By Gary L. Bledsoe
NNPA Guest Columnist
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Once said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Therein lies much of the justification for our urging to Americans of all races to take notice of and be concerned about the death of Michael Brown and its handling by both St. Louis County and state officials.
Like Americans of all colors, African-Americans support law enforcement and understand the need in today’s society to have effective public safety. However, they are also entitled to equitable, proper and humane treatment by law enforcement, and the failure to recognize this is one of the primary causes of our Nation’s great racial divide.
Even if you take the St. Louis County prosecutor’s version of important facts like Brown running towards Officer Wilson, it does not justify killing him. We must acknowledge that Wilson had a short time to react and assess the situation but this is a situation that police officers are trained to handle.
There are limits on when even a police officer in a civilized society should be able to use deadly force. It is undisputed that Brown attempted to flee initially before turning around, that he was wearing basketball shorts, that he was unarmed and that he was a distance away from Wilson when the shots were fired. It is also undisputed that Wilson had other means available to subdue Brown, including pepper spray, a night stick and his law enforcement training. The failure to prepare to use them at the proper time does not give rise to any justification to use deadly force.
Further, law enforcement backup was en route and arrived right after the shooting, and had Brown been alive they could have assisted in effecting the arrest.
Michael Brown running or walking towards Wilson is still just an unarmed person running towards him. Missouri law and U.S. Supreme Court precedent place limits on when a police officer can use deadly force (apparently contrary to information provided to the grand jury by law enforcement.. An officer does not have unfettered discretion to do as he or she wants. Police officers use a continuum of force and are not permitted to use force that is not reasonable or necessary to effect an arrest.
A trained officer with many other types of force available felt it necessary to shoot at an unarmed man 12 times (some of my good friends in law enforcement have informed me that they are taught you should never have to fire more than three rounds unless it is the most unusual and extreme circumstance)? This is just outrageous. Who might he have shot or killed in this effort to shoot someone who was not a serious danger to the public?
The officer was 6’4″ and 210 pounds and was trained to defend himself. Police officers — as women officers know — are taught defensive techniques specifically designed to combat individuals who may be greater in size or strength and use many different techniques to overcome the other person such as knee strikes, punches and blows. This experience along with the tools on their belts which are designed to one up any unarmed subject should be sufficient to address such situations as we have here. In fact, the batons like Wilson had are specifically designed to “incapacitate” a subject—even a large one like Brown.
Descriptions of Brown as a demon and comparisons of him to pro wrestler Hulk Hogan even give rise to the notion that African-Americans are something other than human. We want our police officers to be safe and have the tools to do their work, but we should follow the admonition of former Supreme Court Justice Byron White, a former prosecutor and conservative jurist: “The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstance, is constitutionally unreasonable. It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape.”
Here are a few thoughts on what can be done to fix the system:
1. Make it statutory that if a suspect is unarmed that an officer should use all reasonable means to avoid the taking of human life and employ the continuum of force where practical. As a component part of this they should be required to have pepper spray, batons and other lesser means of force available on their person and be trained properly in their use.
2. Require body video cameras so we know exactly what happens when such a situation transpires.
3. Provide for an independent prosecutor to be appointed with access to independent laboratories, investigative and forensic assistance.
4. Provide for the impanelling of a special and independent grand jury that is randomly selected from the citizens of the community rather than from a key man system.
5. Require adherence to the rule that says you should not use any deadly force against a misdemeanant and we should allow a fleeing felon to continue and flee unless there is probably cause to believe he or she will inflict deadly force or cause serious bodily injury to another if they are not then apprehended.
The death of Michael Brown could have been avoided by followed the above steps.
Gary Bledsoe, a former Texas Assistant Attorney General, is an Austin, Texas-based attorney. He is NAACP State President and national board member.