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Saturday, December 6, 2014
Current Affairs ...

I decided to wait a bit until offering any comments on the Grand Jury decision not to criminally indict Ferguson, MO Police Officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown this past August 9. I’m not qualified to offer any grand observations about the current state of race relations in America, nor am I about to go into why the criminal justice system seems to unfairly treat so many African American people.

I am, however, impliedly saying this much: I do not think the “police problem” is reducible to one or two simple factors, such as the notion that the overall law enforcement system is controlled by “white America” (not sure if that means non-Latin Euro-Americans only, or also includes Asian Americans and Latinos having largely Euro and non-native blood) and is designed to keep “people of color” under their control. I’m not saying that this notion is entirely untrue; but it’s far from the whole story either, I suspect. However, at the moment, the whole story is beyond my ability to grasp and intelligently comment on.

I will offer comments on two more immediate issues, based on what I’ve read and seen on the news sites about the evidence that the Grand Jury considered (along with the background info on Michael Brown and Darren Wilson that the press has dug up over time). The first thing that strikes me is that both of these men had clean records. As far as I can tell from what the press has reported, you wouldn’t have suspected that either one of them might aggressively initiate a physical altercation, such as the one that the Ferguson witnesses and forensic evidence indicate took place at Officer Wilson’s police vehicle when he stopped Michael Brown. (I.e., just after Wilson first addressed Wilson and his friend about walking in the center of the street, when he backed his vehicle at a 90 degree angle on the street as to block their way).

And yet — someone must have aggressively initiated a conflict that led to the discharge of Officer Wilson’s weapon, and to the facial injuries on Wilson himself. The witnesses gave a wide variety of interpretations and generally could not nail this question down. Officer Wilson testified that Brown became physically aggressive and assaulted him just as he was about to question Brown about the near-by convenience store robbery that had just occurred, which Wilson was aware of via police radio. Dorian Johnson, Brown’s friend and the witness who was closest to what actually happened, said that Wilson initiated an unprovoked physical assault on Brown and that Brown was trying to defend himself from that unjustified assault, which included Wilson’s alleged attempt to shoot Brown during the struggle on the front seat of the police vehicle.

Who was the monster and who was the rational defender here? It’s a bit too easy to let your pre-conceived notions make that decision for you; and the pre-conceived notions of many African Americans is obviously quite different from those of many “white” Americans (it probably doesn’t matter precisely how you define “white” here; any reasonable interpretation assumedly gets the same results). But try to put those pre-conceived notions aside for now . . . I also have my “PCN’s”, but from the perspective of a guy who likes science and empirical evidence, I must admit: I wasn’t there, and either explanation / interpretation could be correct here. It’s not all that different from the state of a quantum particle. There’s an information blurriness that just ain’t gonna go away.

[And yes, there’s also the old bromide that “it’s usually both”. Perhaps Brown and Wilson were simultaneously having bad days. Perhaps Wilson approached Brown in a somewhat aggressive and disrespectful fashion, then Brown over-reacted in response, and the situation continued to escalate with each party progressively becoming more irrational. That’s not at all impossible — as chaos theory proves, in a recursive system at a critical “tipping-point” state, just a tiny initial deviation can be blown up into a major game-changing outcome.]

The old stand-by of looking at each person’s life history and behavioral track-record for clues just doesn’t help in this case. Both actors are pretty close to “Eagle Scout” level. Sure, Brown was high on marijuana at the time and had just robbed some cigars from a store. But everyone has a bad day; everyone occasionally acts out of character for a little while. Perhaps Brown was undergoing some sort of emotional stress that temporarily knocked him out of equilibrium (not an uncommon thing at his young age); it doesn’t conclusively prove that he would also grab, push and punch an armed police officer. Recall that in the convenience store video of Brown’s robbery incident, he pushed the store clerk who challenged him, but did not really harm him. Going after an armed cop is taking that to a whole different level. As many have commented, a joint or two usually isn’t going to make you THAT crazy. It doesn’t seem like Brown, even a toked-up Michael Brown on bad behavior, would have gone after someone with the power and training to instantly kill him.

And yet, there’s nothing in Wilson’s history hinting that he was spoiling for the opportunity to assault and if necessary kill an African-American teenager suspected of committing a (relatively petty) crime. And even if he did harbor such feelings and inspirations, did he really believe that he could get away without any repercussions (especially after the response to the Trayvon Martin incident in Florida in 2012)? Sure, Wilson is not going to face criminal charges (and the federal investigation probably isn’t going to stick either); but he had to leave the Ferguson Police Department, he lives under constant threat, and it’s probably going to be quite a while until his life can get back to any sort of normalcy. It’s hard to imagine where he might find a job — what employer would want the negative publicity of having such a racially polarizing figure on its staff? How could Wilson not have anticipated this?

It’s just a terribly frustrating situation — you can believe what you wish, but from a scientist’s point of view, it just cannot logically be determined from the available evidence. Face up to it — this matter is truly unknowable. I believe that to be the most honest way of looking at it.

But I’m not going to be entirely honest here. I AM going to make a tentative, hypothetical judgment, but solely for the purpose of examining what MIGHT have transpired in the second half of the Ferguson incident. I.e., when Officer Wilson opened fire with his weapon on Michael Brown after chasing him. I am going to assume that during the preceding struggle at the vehicle, Brown did in fact land a hard punch to Wilson’s jaw, causing the facial bruise seen in the hospital photos. Obviously, we can’t be entirely sure what caused that bruise; arguably, Wilson might have hit his face against the side of the car door during the altercation. But I am going to take some liberty and assume that however the struggle in the police vehicle was started, at some point during the fight Brown landed a solid shot to Wilson’s face.

And now it’s on to psychology 101, some pop / folk psychoanalysis on my part. The evidence is pretty solid that Wilson fired two series of shots with a brief pause, and in both series, Brown was hit at least once (probably more). We are also pretty sure that the shots that most likely killed Brown, i.e. the shot to his forehead and another hitting his left eye, were fired during the final round. We also know forensically that Brown was about 25 feet closer to Wilson when he fell than when the first volley of shots began. Wilson himself testified that Brown was about 10 feet away from him during his final round.

I am not trained to use a gun, but I nonetheless believe it reasonable to assume that a person trained in the use of weapons would have a fair amount of discretion as to what part of the body they can hit at a 10 foot range in daylight, assuming a normal firing stance (which we probably can assume that Wilson was using). I recently asked a fellow who is currently employed as a law enforcement officer, and who is trained to use weapons, if this proposition was reasonable; he generally agreed with it. If so, that would lead me to suspect that Wilson made a decision, however rapidly and without benefit of conscious reflection, to go after Brown’s head.

So let me play shrink here, as well as police tactician (both of which I am eminently unqualified for). At 10 feet, I would guess that if Wilson had at least 3 bullets left in his gun, he could reasonably expect to incapacitate Brown by shooting at the legs and hip. Even if Brown then still reached Wilson, with a bullet in his upper leg or groin, I think we can assume that Wilson would not have had much trouble getting Brown under control. And Wilson expected his requested back-up to arrive at any moment (who did actually arrive about a minute after the shooting). So why did Wilson “go fatal” and aim for the head?

Well, again — I grant that there was no time for conscious reflection (or “pre-meditation” as the legal wording goes); it was happening in tenths of seconds. Still, it appears that Wilson might have made a sub-conscious decision to “give back what he got”, to play “tit for tat” with Brown. He had just [assumedly] been punched in the face; it would seem like basic human nature to want revenge against one’s opponent in a similar fashion. An eye for an eye. Wilson’s statements during and after the Grand Jury seem to reflect his focus on Brown’s face and head, e.g. how Brown looked “angry”, maybe even crazy. Wilson also said at one point “all I could see was his face”.

Of course, it could still be that Officer Wilson started the altercation at the car with the intent to kill Brown (or developed a murderous intent shortly thereafter in response to Brown’s hardy resistance to Wilson’s initial assault), and now was simply finishing the job. Again, we can’t ever know for sure. But even if we assume the best for Officer Wilson, i.e. that he did not wish to physically harm Brown when initiating contact with him (although certainly he was contemplating an arrest because of the reported store robbery), one has to wonder about that final choice of shooting Brown in the head. Was it morally correct?

Under the best interpretation for Wilson, his decision to place his final shots in Brown’s head and thus likely kill him may not have been entirely or even primarily racially motivated (although certainly, no white person can be certified 100% pure colorblind; and ditto for the reverse proposition with regard to blacks). It may have been more a matter of rage, a rage that would have kicked-in no matter what color his perceived enemy may have been. Should we expect our law enforcement officers to be above such rage? Just how emotionless and rational can we expect our human police to be, versus the still hypothetical Robocop (but possibly not too distant in the future)?

For now, I’m just going to leave that question in the same quantum blur that the “who started it” question must remain in. But at some point, society DOES need to answer that question. I hope that the whole Ferguson thing might inspire thoughtful policy-makers to consider just what we can and can’t expect from humans paid and trained to enforce our laws, in a fair and unbiased manner.

[PS — now we have the Eric Gardner non-indictment. That situation is clearly different that Ferguson. And clearly wrong, very wrong. Hopefully the Feds will get some justice in that case; that’s where the Feds can be useful in correcting the gaps in local criminal justice.]

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:20 am      

  1. Jim, I’m sorry here, but I’m going to have to take a slight difference with your approach to this whole topic. I would say that a “scientific” approach to trying to figure out the reasons, the whys and wherefores, of the latest 3 incidents that involved “law and order” and Black people (Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Gardner). I’m saying “law and order” for the reason that in the Treyvon Martin case a police person was not involved but a “semi-type” police was involved; and then also, the Treyvon Martin case involved an Hispanic man which can leave one in a conundrum: Is a Hispanic person considered “white” or “semi-white”? Or must one designate “Hispanic” to be accurate? It’s one of those things that’s beyond me. So I’m putting all 3 together, saying “law and order” and “white” and letting it go at that.

    Another reason I doubt that “science” can solve any of what happened in these 3 cases is that, while there is a lot of science that is called on to figure out exactly what happened, when it comes to the actual people involved – both those who were killed and those who did the killing – emotions played a much bigger part in each situation and in the protests than anybody seems willing to admit. I wonder what would be found out if one asked of the police, “what were your emotions at the time this happened”.

    Furthermore, in all the protests involved in these situations, once again, it is primarily the emotions of the protestors that are involved, leaving science out of the picture for the most part. It seems to me (with all due respect) that the protestors in every case seize on one or two “scientific” points and then use emotions to express their “feelings” – and again, we are back to the non-scientific.

    The following comes to mind here as far as I’m concerned, and it makes a very big difference, to my way of thinking. In the case of the two teenagers involved: One was a younger teenager; the other an older teenager. Having taught and had close dealings with teenage boys for 10 years in teaching high school, I am very aware that there is a very large difference between a young teenage boy and an older teenage boy. A thirteen, fourteen year old teenage boy is still a “boy”; a fifteen or sixteen year old (maybe even seventeen year old) teenage boy is on the “fence” between being a man and being a boy. But an eighteen or nineteen year old teenage “boy” (to say nothing of a twenty year old “teenage boy” [I find twenty year olds are still called “teenagers” lately] is definitely a man.

    Thus it would seem to me that the three cases of Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Gardner are worlds apart both who the victim was and thus the level of maturity in his response and the consequent reaction in the person being accused. Eric Gardner was a grown man – another world apart from teenagers. It would, thus, seem to me that it’s almost impossible to compare these 3 cases – except for the fact that the victims in each case were Black and the accused in each case was white.

    To my surprise the other day, a person I know who is well acquainted with “street” types of things and the police in particular said unasked and “out of the blue” regarding the Michael Brown protestors: These people (meaning the protestors) are gangbangers! How can they kill people and protest it when a police kills this guy (Michael Brown). I tho’t: Well, that’s a new, different, and interesting approach to the whole thing – at least as far as I was concerned. I tho’t that this man must have recognized someone he knew as a gangbanger; he’s not the type to use that word indiscriminately; he uses it specifically.

    The police should be expected to know at least a modicum of medical knowledge as in the Eric Gardner case. I would say that when someone says eleven times “I can’t breathe” not much medical knowledge is required to realize that it is time to take a step back and reconsider the situation. So, at least some basic medical knowledge should be part of the training of officers. In a case near where I live police killed a male nursing home resident who was in his 90s when all they really had to do was close his room door and let him get over whatever it was that was bothering him; instead they shot him with at close range with bean bag rounds from a shotgun, causing internal bleeding and death. Not much medical knowledge is required in such a case, but perhaps some few tidbits would be helpful when it comes to considering people who may have medical issues – at least enough knowledge to say, let’s take a step back and reconsider the situation. Instead emotions (often anger and fear, a deadly combination) take over and don’t’ allow for any real considered, careful tho’t.

    Maybe what is needed is some instruction for police never to respond in anger to anyone, if such a thing is possible. I learned early in dealing with students for four decades that *my* responding in anger was always a fatal flaw on my part and never helpful to the students; I learned early to *pretend* anger when necessary but not to *be* angry. Some of that might idea be useful for police; a sense of “meaning what is said” comes with a “pretend” anger, as it does with real anger; yet “pretend” anger (as say in acting angry) can give one both some ability to control a situation without allowing emotions to govern the reactions of a person.

    To further the emotional aspect of protestors here: I was talking to someone who has emphysema and thus great difficulty breathing at times. Everything she said about the Eric Gardner case related back to how *she* felt when she could not breathe. Thus science was not going to help here; it did not come into play anywhere in the discussion and was impossible to introduce as a kind of attempt at discussion. Her emotions and empathy with Mr. Gardner *did* play a big part in how she *felt* about the protest. Science has little to do with these kinds of responses.

    Admittedly, the police can be dumb in cases. For instance, I heard of one case where a deaf young man was arrested for “flashing gang signs”; seems the cops could not tell the difference between gang signs and sign language, which the deaf young man used. A plain-out “DUH!”

    I certainly will admit that there is a great deal of unconscious prejudice within all of us. I’ve experienced it from Black people. I *know* that I said something very offensive to Asian friends and, to my horror, didn’t realize it until much later. I’m sure that I could make (probably have made) such a mistake with Black people I know. In every case it’s almost always emotions or thoughtless reactions that rule the situation; science itself (with all due respect to your love for it) plays a small role in such situations.

    And it may be that emotions have a place in making people aware of injustices faster and more thoroughly than science does. It seems to me that time is needed for people to settle their emotions, figure out what it is they really think about a particular situation, and then allow science to influence their judgment. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 6, 2014 @ 7:47 pm

  2. I think the one thing that troubles me the most about this episode is that Darren Wilson said he had “no regrets” over the shooting. Wilson should have never been a police officer if he could kill an unarmed man and still say “no regrets”. Although I don’t expect police officers to be infallible, I’m not seeing much personal responsibility here.

    Comment by Zreebs — December 7, 2014 @ 11:57 pm

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