Federal law enforcement officials familiar with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., tell The New York Times that officer Darren Wilson, who struck Mr. Brown with six shots, feared for his life after the larger man punched him, then reached for his sidearm.
The Aug. 9 shooting sparked widespread and lasting protests in and around Ferguson, Mo, which have at times turned violent. More than 250 people have been arrested on charges ranging from burglary to refusing to disperse by police order.
The shooting and protests also highlighted simmering tensions in St. Louis and the United States more broadly over statistics that show police are more likely to shoot young black men than white men, even under similar circumstances. It also has raised questions about policing in a primarily black town overseen by a majority-white police department.
Given US laws that give wide latitude to police officers to use deadly force against potential threats, the new revelations, if true, could reduce the chance of Mr. Wilson being indicted on federal civil rights violations, and could play into whether a grand jury currently meeting decides there is probable cause to put Wilson in front of a jury.
“That Brown may have had his hands up, and that he was shot six times, will likely be minor points for the grand jury weighing evidence that suggests a struggle inside Wilson’s car,” writes Justin Glawe on the Daily Beast.
Protesters have continued to call for Wilson’s arrest, and some groups have threatened broader mayhem if he is cleared of wrongdoing. St. Louis law enforcement officials say they are preparing for civil unrest as the grand jury investigation expects to wrap up and make an announcement in mid-November.
The account to the Times is the first to be made public offering Wilson’s perspective of the events of Aug. 9. It recounts Wilson’s escalating fear as he alleges that Brown punched and scratched him, then grabbed for his gun. Forensics show that the gun was fired twice inside the car, striking Brown once in the arm.
Wilson had engaged Brown and a friend for walking in the middle of the road, and then may have connected Brown to a recent strong-arm robbery after spotting a box of cigars in his hand.
The new account, however, “does not explain why, after he emerged from his vehicle, he fired at Mr. Brown multiple times,” write Michael Schmidt, Matt Apuzzo, and Julie Bosman, in the Times. “It contradicts some witness accounts, and it will not calm those who have been demanding to know why an unarmed man was shot a total of six times.”
Some witnesses have said Brown was shot after putting his hands up in surrender. Others claim Brown had turned around and was moving toward the officer when he was killed.
“What the police say is not to be taken as gospel,” said Benjamin Crump, the Brown family’s attorney. “The officer’s going to say whatever he’s going to say to justify killing an unarmed kid. ... No matter what happened in the car, Michael Brown ran away from him.”
There are two separate investigations going on into Brown’s death: one by the Department of Justice and the other by St. Louis County police, including prosecutor Robert McCulloch, who has in the past declined to prosecute cops who shot black men under questionable circumstances.
Such dynamics means that many residents are concerned about whether Brown’s case can be fairly handled by local police.
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson recently apologized for his officers' decision to leave Brown's body in the street for more than four hours, a decision that was read as an act of intimidation by some residents. Ferguson police officers also have been chided by the Justice Department for putting tape over their names on their badges and wearing armbands that show solidarity with Wilson.
What the protesters are asking is for the case to be taken to trial and let a jury decide whether Wilson acted within the law, says Donald Jones, a University of Miami law professor.
He sees a cultural backdrop of alleged oppression of poor blacks in and around St. Louis that goes deeper than one case.
“It’s questions of power … where a disciplinary regime has to use force, violence and fear to maintain a caste system,” says Professor Jones. As such, “police have become very much like the enforcers not of objective law, but of a kind of racial law … which is frightening.”
But the facts alone, and how they fit into US Supreme Court case law, may be the ultimate deciding factor in whether Wilson is charged.
The US Supreme Court protects the ability of officers to use deadly force to a great degree, including in cases where someone who may be a threat to society is running away. The fact that Brown may have reached for the officer’s gun, some legal experts say, may in itself have ratcheted the encounter up to a situation where an officer would be allowed to use deadly force. In Missouri, it’s in most cases considered reasonable use of force to shoot and kill somebody who reached for an officer’s gun.
Critics of such rulings and laws say they give too much protection to rogue officers who injured or killed people who posed little threat. Studies show that less than 8 percent of allegations of excessive force by US police officers result in discipline against officers.
“As a result, individual officers and departments are unaffected by the use of excessive force, which leave civilians — particularly unarmed men of color — at risk of physical injury, with little the law can do to deter excessive or even egregious force,” Anthony Rothert, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Missouri, told the Washington Post recently.
In the same Post story, David Klinger, a former police officer and criminologist who once shot a suspect in the line of duty, explained that Wilson likely would have taken into account the wrestling for the gun, his own injuries at Brown’s hand, and his ability to physically take on the larger man as he calculated where he was on the legal use of force continuum.