Appearing in plainclothes, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson on Thursday humbly apologized directly to Michael Brown’s family for his department's handling of the teenager's death, including the fact that Brown’s body lay in the street for nearly four hours after the shooting.
“I want to say this to the Brown family: No one who has not experienced the loss of a child can understand what you're feeling. I am truly sorry for the loss of your son,” Chief Jackson said in a video statement.
Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot an unarmed Mr. Brown on Aug. 9 after witnesses said the younger, but larger, man raised his hands in surrender. The shooting and ensuing riots touched off a national debate about racial bias and militarized policing.
Aside from the shooting itself, which is being investigated by a grand jury and the Department of Justice, Jackson and his department seemed to much of the rest of America to be tone-deaf in their handling of the shooting and its aftermath. Critics have called for Jackson to be fired for his handling of the tragedy.
The fact that Brown’s body wasn’t covered and was left in the street was the subject of angry commentary at community forums this week, perhaps sparking the apology. Critics objected to the strong-arm response to protests. And the release of a video showing Brown taking cigars from a store on the same day the department named Wilson as the shooter didn’t seem to many to be as much about transparency as demonizing the deceased.
Coming nearly two months after Brown’s death led to two weeks of protests and rioting in Ferguson, Jackson’s contrition also stands in stark contrast to earlier statements by town officials such as Mayor James Knowles, who has indicated he does not believe the town has a racial divide.
At the same time, while Jackson’s response may be late in coming, his contrition is part of what African-Americans in Ferguson have demanded since Brown’s death, namely respect, humility, honesty, and some sense of solidarity.
Jackson directly addressed the police’s handling of the shooting scene on Aug. 9, where Brown’s body lay uncovered in the street for about 4-1/2 hours.
“I’m also sorry that it took so long to remove Michael from the street,” Jackson said. “The time that it took involved very important work on the part of investigators, who were trying to collect evidence and gain a true picture of what happened that day, but it was just too long, and I am truly sorry for that.
“Please know that the investigating officers meant no disrespect to the Brown family, to the African-American community, or the people of Canfield,” Jackson said. “They were simply trying to do their jobs.”
The question going forward is whether Jackson’s contrition will help ease simmering anger and unrest as the community waits for a grand jury to finish an investigation that will either result in Wilson facing charges or being cleared. That secret grand jury has until Jan. 4 to make a decision.
On Tuesday night, unrest returned to Ferguson as a group of 200 protesters smashed windows, tried to set fire to a bake shop, and threw rocks at police. Earlier that day, a fire had consumed one of three makeshift Brown memorials on Canfield Drive, where the teenager was killed.
The Ferguson City Council has recently introduced reforms aimed at easing tensions with the city’s majority black community. Jackson acknowledged in his video that he wants to take a lead in solving broader problems his department’s actions underscored for many Americans.
“Overnight, I went from being a small-town police chief to being part of a conversation about racism, equality and the role of policing in that conversation,” Jackson said. “As chief of police, I want to be part of that conversation. I also want to be part of the solution.”