For the first time since Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, his family has a scrap of solid information about his death: the number six. That’s how many times Brown was shot, at a minimum. According to Michael Baden, the former chief medical examiner of New York City who conducted a private autopsy at the request of Brown’s family, one of the bullets, probably the last, entered the teenager’s skull at an angle that suggests he was leaning forward.
The stark detail of the preliminary autopsy, complete with a diagram of a man that Baden marked in black ink to show the bullet holes, stands in sharp contrast to the selective way that the Ferguson Police and the St Louis County Police have released information. “Troubling,” is the word that Attorney General Eric Holder chose on Monday to describe their conduct. So far, local officials have offered details that seem intended to smear Brown while hiding others that might clarify the circumstances of his death.
After refusing for days to name the officer who killed Brown, Ferguson police finally identified him on Friday as Darren Wilson. Wilson himself has skipped town, and police still have not released his or any other official report of the shooting. That silence enabled an anonymous account of the shooting from someone claiming to have heard it from Wilson’s wife to get traction in major media outlets, even though it closely resembles another account, originally attributed to Wilson, that had already been dismissed as fake.
What officials did deem appropriate to share—despite the Department of Justice’s objections—was a report of a man stealing cigarillos from a convenience store, and a video of the theft that police say implicates Brown. No one has offered a cogent explanation for why the report of the robbery warranted a public airing while those of Brown’s death do not. Two such reports exist, one written by the Ferguson Police Department, and another by the St. Louis County Police. Both are cited in the account of the convenience store robbery: “It is worth mentioning that this incident is related to another incident detailed under Ferguson Police Report #2014-12391 as well as St. Louis County Police Report #2014-43984. In that incident, Brown was fatally wounded involving an officer of this department.”
Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson was at best unclear, and at worst misleading, about how the robbery and Brown’s death are related. Several hours after announcing details about the convenience store theft in a way that insinuated it had prompted Wilson to engage Brown, Jackson clarified, “The initial contact between the officer and Mr. Brown was not related to the robbery.” Then Jackson refined the official story yet again, telling reporters that Wilson “made the connection” to the theft when he saw Brown carrying a box of cigars.
St. Louis County is also sitting on basic findings from the official autopsy. Yet a very selective scrap of information was leaked to The Washington Post on Monday by two sources familiar with that county report: that Brown had marijuana in his system when he died, meaning only that he’d used it sometime in the last month. Predictably, right-wing commentators seized on this information to vilify Brown.
Officials have chosen particular details about the protests to highlight. At a press conference early Tuesday morning, Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson set a couple of handguns and a Molotov cocktail on a table beside him, and said they’d been taken from “violent agitators” the night before. The optics served to justify the aggressive responses from police that have served only to embolden the minority of protesters engaging violently with police.
In the ten days since Brown was killed, law enforcement have tried to quell protests with rubber bullets and tear gas, with at least four different police forces, with a charismatic captain, with a curfew, by forcing protesters to walk, not stand, and finally with the National Guard. On Tuesday, Johnson said police would again try a “different operational plan,” which seemed to amount to “hoping that protesters will stay home” at night.
There’s been a lot of talk about trust, and its absence, in Ferguson and elsewhere. “In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement,” President Obama said Monday. The mistrust in Ferguson is rooted in history, but it’s also being deepened in real time. History tells us that justice is unlikely to be served in this case; the conduct of the local officials charged with investigating Brown’s death only signals to the community that this time will not be different. In that context, not staying home at night seems like the only way to ensure that it will be.
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