Tony Norman: Police stonewalling is another form of abuse

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Editor’s note: As of publication time, the police officer’s name had not been released. Ferguson police announced Friday that Darren Wilson was the officer involved.

Saturday will mark one week since the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of a still-unidentified police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Witnesses to the shooting insist that Mr. Brown was surrendering to the police officer with hands in the air when he was shot multiple times. The fact that he was unarmed is undisputed.

The anonymous officer has not contradicted this narrative publicly, though Police Chief Thomas Jackson said that the officer was treated at a hospital after incurring a “swollen” face. Police maintain the shooting followed an encounter between the officer and two men, including Mr. Brown, in which one of the men assaulted the officer and tried to grab his gun.

Chief Jackson refuses to release the name of the officer, citing fears for his safety. It is an echo of the rationale for why executioners standing at medieval chopping blocks wore hoods. Who knew that the same grim courtesy would be extended to civil servants in Ferguson, Mo.?

Imagine being able to shoot someone “in the line of duty” and never have to see your name in the paper. That’s a helluva perk to hand to a civil servant along with a gun and a badge.

The reason police officers don’t wear black hoods on patrol is that along with the right to use deadly force comes the expectation of public accountability, and, yes, even scrutiny.

The fact that Ferguson’s police chief believes he isn’t legally or morally obligated to share basic information about the killing of an unarmed citizen illustrates how far the social contract between police and civilians has deteriorated.

Of course this doesn’t excuse the vandalism and looting that has accompanied some of the ensuing protests, but it does give much-needed context to the rage. Public anger in Ferguson is rushing in to fill the vacuum created by the police department’s refusal to be accountable.

Criminal opportunists on the lookout for expensive sneakers and flat-screen televisions are only too happy to take advantage of the public’s indignation.

The terrible irony is that many of those busting department store windows in Ferguson aren’t against murdering young black men on principle. The killing of Michael Brown resonates with a moral equivalence these criminals understand intuitively, though it can never be acknowledged without going to jail.

What offends the law-abiding people of Ferguson so much about the killing of the teenager by a cop sworn to protect them is that the shooting is morally indistinguishable from the arbitrary “street justice” inflicted in their communities by other “anonymous” killers every day.

According to witnesses to the shooting, the unnamed cop showed the same reckless contempt for human life that a run-of-the-mill street thug in St. Louis exhibits. That’s what’s so upsetting and intolerable about it. It’s another “unaccountable” shooting in their ’hood.

Cops are supposed to have more discipline and impulse control than do gun-wielding thugs. If they aren’t capable of showing restraint in a non-lethal situation with an unarmed person, then social order is an illusion.

Here’s a novel idea: If an officer doesn’t want to be held accountable for taking someone’s life in the line of duty, that officer should find another job, because hiding behind a badge of anonymity is not an option the public will tolerate.

The police department isn’t doing itself any favors by stubbornly keeping the officer’s name a secret. All it has done is guarantee greater scrutiny of the officer’s record when his name is eventually released.

Added to the list of stupid actions by police in Ferguson this week was the manhandling and arrest of two journalists for the crime of reporting the breakdown of order there. The militarized police presence has also managed to terrify white folks who aren’t necessarily sympathetic to the plight of blacks in St. Louis. Ferguson shouldn’t look like Fallujah on the evening news.

Many law-and-order conservatives are beginning to see the stupidity of arming small-town police departments with military hardware. Giving Barney Fife big guns, rubber bullets, stun grenades, flak jackets and armored carriers doesn’t mean he won’t use that firepower on Mayberry if Sheriff Andy gives him the go-ahead.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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