As a rather novice newspaper columnist, I’m still excited to have reader responses to what I write. It’s particularly rewarding to be part of a community dialogue on issues of local and national interest. In that spirit, I offer my comments on several letters to the editor and emails I received, all of which are critical of my column two weeks ago about the shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
I called the killing “senseless,” because a simple order to not walk in the middle of a street should never be allowed to result in a death. Certainly, Mr. Brown should have obeyed the order, but a police officer is trained to control such situations from the first contact to resolution. If prudent, just back away and let tempers cool or call for support to exert non-lethal control.
The letters and emails made two general points: They questioned my statement racism is still widespread in our country; one seemed to imply the “Civil Rights movement” took care of the issue. All writers feel I rushed to judgment and convicted Officer Darren Wilson before all the facts are known.
In my column I said Mr. Brown was killed “against a backdrop of racism“ in Ferguson, and I believe there is overwhelming support for that statement. To not believe African-Americans continue to suffer discrimination and, often, mistreatment by public officials is to deny reality.
As to the charge that I convicted Officer Wilson, I was careful to say the “emerging” case “suggests” he “may” not have a self-defense argument. Those words clearly imply the case is not over and in no way constitute a conclusion he’s guilty.
Officer Wilson did not have to act with racial animosity for the killing of Mr. Brown to be unjustified. The critical issue is whether he used excessive force.
Two circumstances are crucial in making that determination: the struggle between Mr. Brown and Officer Wilson in the patrol car, and the later shooting of Mr. Brown more than 20 feet away. It may well be Mr. Brown struck Officer Wilson in the struggle, but it appeared he walked or ran from the car before the shots were fired. If the officer was no longer in immediate danger, there is a factual question as to whether he was justified in shooting at all.
There are eyewitness accounts Mr. Brown had his arms in the air attempting to surrender when he was shot six times. The attending pathologist at an autopsy of Mr. Brown’s body said one bullet grazed his body in a trajectory that is consistent with having been fired from either in front of or behind Mr. Brown. Was he still moving away when Officer Wilson first shot him? According to the medical examiner, the first four shots hit Mr. Brown’s right arm; the last two hit his head, the fatal shot entering the top of his head. Was he already falling down?
You do not aim at a person’s head unless your intent is to kill.
My parents taught me police officers were my friends and to go to them if I ever needed help. I still respect them and appreciate the sacrifices they make. But they are not infallible.
Bo Statham is a retired lawyer, congressional aide and businessman. He lives in Gardnerville and can be reached at email@example.com.
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