Thousands turned in on a livestream (above) as prosecutor Bob McCulloch read the indictment news tonight.
Tonight, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch read the news many feared he would: there will be no indictment in the fatal police shooting of Mike Brown.
As thousands of people rallied in Ferguson and millions more anxiously tuned in online to hear the decision, McCulloch took his time reading through evidence in the case and specifically criticized media coverage of the shooting. While the world waited to hear whether Officer Darren Wilson would be charged on any of five counts for fatally shooting Mike Brown in August, McCulloch plodded through his thoughts on how media attention had unduly influenced public opinion in the case. “Evidence does not change because of public pressure,” he said.
Sadly, the news that Officer Wilson will not be charged with anything in relation to the shooting is not surprising. It’s very rare for police to be convicted—or even tried—for killing citizens. Mother Jones details five cases where police officers in the United States faced mixed legal consequences for killing unarmed black men, reporting that a “limited review” of killings similar to the Mike Brown case “suggests that the officers more often than not walk away without an indictment, and are very rarely convicted.”
But the media coverage of the Ferguson case has not been, as McCulloch argues, a bad thing. Instead, because families like Mike Brown’s rarely get to see their side of the story heard in public court, bringing media attention to cases that seem clearly unjust is essential to improving policing. Media coverage of these cases starts conversations around race and policing that hardly ever find a place in the official proceedings of the justice system.
A protest in St. Louis as part of the Weekend of Resistance this October. Photo by Sarah JI.
One of the big, long-overdue discussions that has emerged from Ferguson is how Mike Brown’s death is part of a widespread pattern. This isn’t just a problem in Ferguson—unequal policing is a problem for every city to examine. On her MSNBC show in August, Melissa Harris-Perry delivered a moving tribute to numerous black men killed by police in recent years, noting that “from 2006 to 2012, a white police officer killed a black person at least twice a week in this country.” The Malcolm X. Grassroots Movement combed through media and police reports to come up with their stunning estimate that every 28 hours in the United States, a black person is killed by a police officer, security officer, or vigilante. In 47 percent of those cases, the group found, the shooter said they opened fire because they “felt threatened” or “feared for their life”—though 44 percent of the fatally shot individuals were unarmed. While many white Americans say that race is talked about “too much” in regard to shootings like the one in Ferguson, the numbers show that race definitely plays a role in the pattern of fatal police shootings.
From the Malcom X. Grassroots Movement Report (PDF here).
But despite clearly being a rampant problem, it’s hard to figure out exactly how often police fatally shoot civilians. There’s no official national database that keeps track of extrajudicial police shootings, so we often only find out about the incidents that gain national media attention.
That’s part of why media attention on cases like Mike Brown’s is essential—regardless of what the prosecutor says. Media coverage is not only crucial for tracking police shootings and changing the conversations we have about race, it can lead to significant oversight of local police departments who have a bad history of violence. Without the public outcry and resulting media coverage, would the federal government ever have investigated New Orleans police for excessive force and racial profiling? Would the Justice Department have ever stepped in to demand police reform in Portland, Oregon? Would Attorney General Eric Holder currently be looking into whether the Ferguson police department has a pattern of excessive force? Because of public pressure in these cities, we can work to make fatal interactions between police and unarmed people of color much more rare. I hope.
Evidence doesn’t change because of public pressure—but hopefully our meaning of “justice” does.
Related Reading: Remembering the Black Women Killed By Police.
Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media’s online editor.