First, he refused to step aside in favor of a special prosecutor who could have been appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri. He further undermined public confidence by taking a highly unorthodox approach to the grand jury proceeding. Instead of conducting an investigation and then presenting the case and a recommendation of charges to the grand jury, his office shifted its job to the grand jury. It made no recommendation on whether to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, but left it to the jurors to wade through masses of evidence to determine whether there was probable cause to file charges against Officer Wilson for Mr. Brown’s killing.
Under ordinary circumstances, grand jury hearings can be concluded within days. The proceeding in this case lasted an astonishing three months. And since grand jury proceedings are held in secret, the drawn-out process fanned suspicions that Mr. McCulloch was deliberately carrying on a trial out of public view, for the express purpose of exonerating Officer Wilson.
If all this weren’t bad enough, Mr. McCulloch took a reckless approach to announcing the grand jury’s finding. After delaying the announcement all day, he finally made it late in the evening, when darkness had placed law enforcement agencies at a serious disadvantage as they tried to control the angry crowds that had been drawn into the streets by news that the verdict was coming. Mr. McCulloch’s announcement sounded more like a defense of Officer Wilson than a neutral summary of the facts that had led the grand jury to its conclusion.
For the black community of Ferguson, the killing of Michael Brown was the last straw in a long train of abuses that they have suffered daily at the hands of the local police. News accounts have strongly suggested, for example, that the police in St. Louis County’s many municipalities systematically target poor and minority citizens for street and traffic stops — partly to generate fines — which has the effect of both bankrupting and criminalizing whole communities.
In this context, the police are justifiably seen as an alien, occupying force that is synonymous with state-sponsored abuse.
The case resonated across the country — in New York City, Chicago and Oakland — because the killing of young black men by police is a common feature of African-American life and a source of dread for black parents from coast to coast. This point was underscored last month in a grim report by ProPublica, showing that young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk — 21 times greater — of being shot dead by police than young white men. These statistics reflect the fact that many police officers see black men as expendable figures on the urban landscape, not quite human beings.
We get a flavor of this in Officer Wilson’s grand jury testimony, when he describes Michael Brown, as he was being shot, as a soulless behemoth who was “almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.”
President Barack Obama was on the mark last night when he said, “We need to recognize that this is not just an issue for Ferguson, this is an issue for America.” The rioting that scarred the streets of St. Louis County — and the outrage that continues to reverberate across the country — underlines this inescapable point. It shows once again that distrust of law enforcement presents a grave danger to the civic fabric of the United States.