Confirming expectations, the U.S. Department of Justice has announced that it will not file federal civil rights charges against the police officer who shot Michael Brown following a confrontation on the streets of Ferguson, Mo. Contrary to a visual theme repeated before countless news cameras through weeks of protests, “no, Michael Brown’s hands probably were not up” at the time of the shooting. In the end, “Hands Up — Don’t Shoot” 2014’s iconic protest gesture, was founded in the self-serving, oft-repeated eyewitness account of Brown chum/soon-established-robbery-accomplice Dorrian Johnson. And he was credible why?
At the same time, the report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Justice makes clear that the Ferguson, Mo. police department was up to its hip in bad practices, ranging from the rights-violative (knowingly baseless arrests and stops, arresting persons for recording police actions) to the cynical (“revenue policing” aimed at squeezing money out of the populace over subjective/petty offenses that include “manner of walking.”)
Whether these bad local police practices are a suitable subject for federal oversight, and where the actually existing U.S. Department of Justice gets off complaining about high-handed and revenue-driven law enforcement given its own sorry track record, are other questions. But any view of Ferguson’s troubles in the back-view mirror should now acknowledge two things: 1) many people rushed to assume Officer Darren Wilson’s guilt who should have known better; 2) even so, there was much to protest in Ferguson law enforcement.
In recent months, libertarians who took an interest in the Ferguson events and sympathetically noted the grievances of local residents have been sniped at from a few quarters as insufficiently supportive of the legitimate role of the police. While I can't speak for all libertarians, I'd say that at groups like Cato, most of us were careful not to prejudge the specifics of the Wilson/Brown encounter before the facts were in, but were not afraid to be critical of the underlying patterns that soon became clear in on-the-scene reporting from Ferguson (escalatory tactics, revenue-driven policing and municipal court practices, pervasive disrespect for citizens' rights in street encounters, and so forth). After yesterday's release of the DoJ report, I continue to believe that ours has been the right approach.
[cross-posted from Overlawyered and expanded with a new final paragraph]