When I was learning my trade - learning to be an effective police officer - I was taught by my elders and (some of) my betters that if you never had a member of the public make a formal complaint about you, you probably weren't doing your job very well. With the vast repository of knowledge and wisdom that all nineteen year-olds possess, I thought this was very silly piece of advice. Surely, I thought, if you were doing your job properly, people wouldn't be complaining? Of course, I was hopelessly wrong. Police work is like juggling eels over the top of a crowd of people enjoying a meal (I don't know why that simile created itself in my head); you are bound to upset someone at least some of the time. The problem, unfortunately, is that people love the police when they're helping them, but despise them if the police catch them doing something that they shouldn't. Police-haters tend to fall into three broad categories;
1. People who have been caught doing something wrong and who feel that they are too special to have to abide by the law, therefore all pigs are bastards for ignoring this unwritten rule.
2. People related to or friendly with those in the first group, and who therefore sympathise with them and agree that all pigs are indeed utter bastards.
3. People who are so mind-numbingly stupid (and there's a lot of them out there) that they believe it's cool to hate the police, so they do it just to stay relevant.
I can't tell you how many complaints I received in my service - not because of the Official Secrets Act or anything dull like that - I just can't remember. It probably averaged two or three each year. Since, in one way or another, I probably dealt with a few thousand people each year, I don't think that's a bad average. I was, after all, the kind of copper who, if you (while in an inebriated state) were to aggressively approach me, would advise your friends to get you out of my face, or in other words, give you a chance to go away and behave yourself. Come back a second time, and you're nicked, simple as that. I think that's fair, and some of my former colleagues would say it was more than fair. I was the kind of copper who relished helping people, solving problems and making them feel safe and protected. I wasn't spectacular, I wasn't over-the-top and I wasn't a huge number-generator, but I made people feel safe - and that, I assure you, is what people want most. They want to feel safe, they want to feel protected by the law and those who enforce it.
Nevertheless, I would sometimes be the object of complaints. To give you an idea of how the system worked back then, I was once the subject of a three year open investigation wherein I was accused of leaking confidential information to my father, who had then confronted one of his neighbours with it. For three years I was under particular scrutiny, despite the fact that the information that my father had confronted his neighbour (a convicted drug dealer who had his jail term reduced for giving evidence against his drug-dealing friends) with had been printed in the local newspaper that very day after being released by the courts. So; the information wasn't sensitive, it was in the public domain, and I hadn't even spoken to my father on the day in question. Nevertheless: three years of scrutiny. Another time I was accused of assaulting a man who, at the time of the alleged assault, was busy keeping me at bay with his snarling Rottweiler, having just broken his neighbour's cheek with a flurry of punches. His neighbour was a 68 year-old grandmother, by the way. I confess that I really wanted to assault him, but had to be content with arresting him (after he came out of his barricaded house).
Another time I was complained about because, having arrived at the scene of a violent assault and discovered a colleague being choked by a raving maniac, I used significant physical force to get him off my friend. I punched the guy; hard, and it worked quickly - which was the intention. I defy anyone to come up with a better solution in the circumstances. But, I was investigated and despite the court case finding nothing wrong with my actions, I had to wait a year for my own employers to agree.
So, the climate wasn't one of 'cover it up and protect ourselves', it was quite the opposite. This meant that when we became the subject of complaints, we couldn't rely upon common sense or even a sense of real justice - we worried, and we worried a lot. We also came to feel somewhat embattled - not just from the daily rigours of the work, but also from this unspoken feeling of being under attack by 'our own side'. At times we felt very much like we worked under a microscope, and could do little without being subject to criticism.
This, I believe, is a feeling common to many, if not most, police officers. Police officers routinely feel as if they are part of a minute and highly visible minority. They feel as if they are a reviled, unfairly castigated and unjustly criticised group. Much of the time, I believe that they're right. Everybody, after all, seems to know how to do a cop's job better than a cop. Everybody is wise after every event, and everybody tends to seize the first piece of incriminating video and treat it as immutable proof of wrongdoing. In short: cops never, ever receive justice at the hands of the public. They're damned if they do, and double-damned if they don't.
This, however, is not to say that cops get everything right. I know that I didn't, even though I and my colleagues always tried to. Cops can mess up as well as anyone, and there were and still are bad ones out there; to assume otherwise would be ridiculous. I know that many of the bad ones escaped justice too, but the truth was (and I suspect, still is) that the overwhelming majority of police officers are vocational, good people with a desire to serve their community and country.
Ferguson troubles me, however. The statistical evidence of institutionalised racism in the USA is hard to deny or at least pause to think very hard about. The numbers are out there to suggest that being black - or 'a person of colour' - in America is often a very, very different experience from being a white person. The evidence is pretty darned conclusive, and there is no evidence to the contrary, which I find damning. That's a problematic background against which to set this crisis (for a crisis is what I believe it to be).
Obviously I don't know the police officer involved, but I do know what it's like to stop, approach and deal with an aggressive, large individual with no intention of cooperating. I don't know if the officer's account is 100% accurate or truthful; (the two things are separate), but a couple of things make me feel uneasy about it.
First: why would he allow the suspect of a violent crime (and an allegedly verbally aggressive one at that) to approach the open window of his vehicle? Why would he remain in the vehicle at all? North American cops are fastidiously wary of contact with the public and suspects in particular. In this case, however, the cop has stayed in his car while a very large and potentially violent suspect approaches him. This makes me uneasy because it suggests - and only suggests, of course - that he felt uncomfortable or uneasy getting out of the vehicle. Something is odd about that. Being trapped inside a car is a very bad place to be if a potentially violent person is at your window. The account of the struggle at the police vehicle bears this out. Something is wrong there, and the issue needs to be more effectively deconstructed. It makes little sense that this would be allowed to happen - the reasons behind it would be explored in court, I feel sure, as they may go some way to establish the attitude of both parties during the confrontation.
Secondly, the officer stated that he felt no fear during the incident. Frankly, while it's impossible to disprove, I find this very hard to understand. Perhaps the officer is a psychopath - but I doubt it. I'm far more willing to believe instead that he was scared; very scared. I suspect that he knew that he'd made a serious tactical error, knew that he was in some danger from the very large young man (let's not falsely make this a battle between a man and a teenage boy - the guy was a very big man) and was quietly clenching his sphincter. To feel no fear in such a situation would be extraordinary. My suspicion is that he had been extensively coached prior to the Grand Jury hearing NOT to admit to feeling fearful, since such an admission would open up speculation about this state of mind, objectivity and ability to make rational decisions - not to mention to allow an introduction to his personal beliefs and prejudices. The claim of being fear-free makes little sense, and for most reasonable people would ring an alarm bell.
Third; I'm confused as to at what point the officer felt so threatened (without any fear, remember) or felt so strongly that his safety was compromised, that he was justified in firing what amounts to a fusillade of bullets at the suspect. Remember; the initial altercation had ended, the suspect had run away after being slightly wounded by the first shot fired while WILSON was still in the police cruiser. The officer then gave chase on foot - there was and has been no suggestion that BROWN was armed - yet when BROWN turned and came towards him, he felt the need to use deadly force almost immediately.
As in so many legal cases, these things are important because the issues have an impact far beyond the individual case. There are questions about police training, police attitudes, acceptable use of force protocols, suitability of recruits - the list is a long one. Included on that list is the state of mind of Michael BROWN. Clearly, he was no innocent kid out for a harmless walk around the neighbourhood. Clearly he had an aggressive and violent side. The reasons for that may be a microcosm of the rift between races in America today - the reasons must be spoken about; must be aired.
Based on the few facts that we know, I believe fear has a home in this small America town, just as it has a strong and vibrant home in racism, discrimination and prejudice of any kind. Fear is a killer; it breeds and grows and creates terror, irrational beliefs and attitudes. Fear makes even the best of us do things we might not otherwise do.
Fear can even make us pull a trigger multiple times - because when all the stories we have been told start to come true in one catastrophic incident, all bets are off, and the game becomes one of survival - at least in one person's head. Perhaps fear is our greatest problem?