Opinion Columns & Blogs

Ferguson: It’s too early to demonize or canonize

In the conflicting narratives about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Officer Darren Wilson is either a rogue who killed an unarmed man or a heroic survivor. Brown is either a martyr to the vile practice of racial profiling or else a dangerous felon shot while attacking a cop.

Why the need to demonize or canonize at this point?

We have heard that Brown, a young African-American man, robbed a convenience store minutes before Officer Wilson stopped him while he and a friend were walking down the middle of a street. We have also been told that Brown shoved Wilson back inside his car, injuring him, and then attempted to take the officer's duty weapon. It supposedly fired and Brown fled. He was then shot numerous times, allegedly while surrendering to Wilson.

Nearly every aspect of the confrontation is disputed by witnesses and police, yet many people have made up their minds about what happened.

That defies logic. The dynamic events leading up to a police shooting are a layer of subtle micro-events which form a coherent picture only when pieced together. In much the same way the Big Bang cannot be adequately explained without breaking it into nanoseconds, every nuance leading up to a shooting must be dissected before it can be understood.

Let’s consider two disputed details:

Was Brown unarmed? If it is shown that he did lay his hands on Wilson’s duty gun, his lack of a weapon of his own isn’t necessarily a decisive factor. (And if he let go of the gun and back away, should a reasonable person assume he wouldn't try again?) Did Wilson shoot Brown when his hands were raised? If so, it’s hard to imagine a justification for the use of deadly force.

As a former police officer, the most frustrating condemnation of police came from columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. Pitts invoked the spirit of Atticus Finch, demanding that we climb into the skin of another person and walk around in it before rendering judgment. Missing was any admission that cops have skin, too.

Two brief examples from my own career:

In the first, my partner and I were chasing a wanted felon, a 6-foot, 350-pound gang member known to have carried weapons in the past. I found him first and drew my gun. This massive young man challenged me, closing the distance between us in seconds. Though his hands were empty and at his side, he was a step away from putting his hands on my weapon. No time to draw a less lethal weapon, no time to reholster. Do I shoot an unarmed man?

Fortunately, my partner arrived. After a lengthy fight, we arrested him. I still do not know what I would have done had he not shown up.

The second incident involved a preteen boy who had allegedly used a knife in a robbery against another kid. When I found the suspect and his mother at home, I politely attempted to address the issue. She heaped abuse on me, calling me a “f-ing pig” and “stupid cracker,” among other choice names.

I endured it in silence for 10 straight minutes until my sergeant arrived, listened briefly, then told me to walk away. The score: Hatred 1. Justice 0.

None of this is meant to excuse the police response in Ferguson. The cops share much of the blame for the subsequent riots. We learned in the 1990s, when Tacoma’s Hilltop was awash in gunfire and gangs, that handcuffs and jail are merely a tourniquet. The real remedy is a strong partnership between the people and their police.

But that kind of partnership takes willingness to step into the skin of another. Including the skin in uniform.

Brian O’Neill, a Gig Harbor resident and former South Sound police officer, is a former reader columnist. Email him at btoflyer@comcast.net.