Five days after a police officer fired multiple rounds at and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, we now know that the officer’s name is Darren Wilson. Thanks to Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, we also know that officers believe Brown had just strong-armed a convenience store clerk for a $48.99 box of Swisher Sweets cigars. Jackson provided the incident report from that robbery to reporters in Missouri this morning. He took no questions, suggesting reporters take some time to “digest it.”
Having read it and re-read it and digested it, I find the Ferguson police department’s behavior over the past week even more baffling than I did before.
For the sake of argument let’s assume (a huge assumption) that the Ferguson police are not trying to build a public case for Wilson’s innocence by assassinating a dead man’s character.
Why did it take five days for them to release this information, none of which has anything to do with the circumstances of Brown’s death?
What happened to the box of Swisher Sweets?
Per Matt Yglesias, if Brown was a suspect in a robbery, why wasn’t his accomplice Dorian Johnson arrested and charged rather than allowed to escape and appear in multiple television news interviews?
Was Johnson lying when he claimed that Wilson approached him and Brown not to question or arrest them for robbery but to tell them to “get the fuck onto the sidewalk”?
We don’t know because Jackson says he “cannot discuss the investigation about the attempted apprehension of the suspect in that strong-arm robbery. That goes to the county prosecutor’s office.”
I’m sure there are more questions. This is just for starters. But it smells very bad when a police department refuses to release any information about a deadly officer-involved shooting, unleashing five days of madness, and then reverses course to assure the public that Brown was a menacing, cigar-stealing thug.
I’ve seen a number of people online entertain an obvious but important hypothetical series of events like the ones in Ferguson, only with races reversed. Among the reasons such a scenario is so hard for so many people to fathom is that we instinctually believe protests would be unnecessary if a black officer killed a white kid because justice would be meted out swiftly and transparently.
Do a quick Google search for news stories about a black police officer killing a white teenager and the internet will spit back dozens of stories about precisely the opposite scenario. Michael Brown after Michael Brown.
But you’ll also find the Orange, Texas case of Captain Robert Arnold, a black Ranger who wrongfully killed James Whitehead, a white former Marine. Whitehead barked racial slurs at Arnold, who was responding to an altercation at an auto parts store, but the police insisted the slurs had nothing to do with the use of force. Arnold’s name was released to the press immediately. He was placed on administrative leave following the shooting. A Grand Jury said it lacked sufficient evidence to recommend a prosecution, but Arnold was nevertheless suspended indefinitely because, as police chief Sam Kittrell told Arnold in a letter, “alternative measures on your part would have prevented the necessity of the use of deadly force.”
Perhaps the investigation into the Wilson shooting will proceed just as smoothly from this point forward. Perhaps Jackson will have compelling answers to the above questions next time he meets the press. But nothing we’ve seen so far inspires much confidence that either of these things will happen.
UPDATE: We now have an answer to question number four, above. According to Police Chief Jackson, "The initial contact between the officer [Darren Wilson] and Mr. Brown was not related to the robbery." Wilson approached Brown and his companion "because they were walking down the middle of the street, blocking traffic."
In other words, Wilson didn't know about the robbery at all when the encounter began. Which calls the incident report's legal relevance to the circumstance of the shooting into question. If the altercation began under totally different pretenses, why try to connect the two? One reason would be to build a narrative that's consistent with Wilson's story. If Brown had just committed a crime, and was willing to tussle, and Wilson thought he was dealing with a couple of harmless jaywalkers, then it's easier to believe that Brown was combative and Wilson was caught off guard. Both things need to be true if we're to believe Wilson's version of events—that Brown assaulted him, lunged for his gun, and was subsequently shot.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.