Last night St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch announced that the grand jury decided that no criminal indictment was called for against police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. While we hope that the jury reached the decision after careful deliberation of the evidence presented to them, relying on the grand jury to decide whether or not to bring charges against Officer Wilson undermined public confidence that a fair and full account of the events of August 9th would be presented to jurors. And since the deliberations and voting of the grand jury proceedings are kept secret, the public is left to wonder whether the vote was unanimous or split between those who favored indictment and those who did not. All we know of the deliberations is that there were fewer than nine jurors who voted to indict. Of the twelve jurors, only three were African-American.
The decision to rely on the grand jury has renewed and deepened the dismay felt by a growing segment of the population that there is a tiered system of justice in the United States. This has aroused distrust, alienation, and rage over the disparities in the treatment of civilians, and especially people of color, compared to police officers, and especially those officers who are white. It has been maintained by government officials and law enforcement leadership that the disparities are due to the higher rates of criminality and violence in the neighborhoods where people of color reside but they fail to see how police actions contribute to problems experienced in those communities.
The increasingly weaponized and confrontational tactics used widely in law enforcement across the country have deepened divisions and fomented anger among civilians who have been stopped, frisked, and arrested without probable cause, have been adjudicated for trivial crimes, denied due process in the judicial system, been incarcerated for absurdly lengthy sentences (often with a great deal of that sentence served in solitary confinement), have had civil rights of freedom of movement and voting privileges taken away, face significant barriers to employment due to criminal records, and continue to be under the surveillance of the justice system even after serving sentences.
Police officers, on the other hand, seem immune from prosecution in even egregious cases. And they are not alone. People of color who live in economically poor neighborhoods are in jail at this very moment for small crimes such as possessing marijuana but they are not joined by their wealthy white counterparts who are at least as likely to have marijuana with them but won’t be subjected to being stopped and frisked. Meanwhile, major crimes committed by whites with far-reaching and disastrous consequences are not even addressed—the lack of prosecution of responsible individuals in the financial industry is a prime example.
Indicting Darren Wilson would clearly not solve the nation’s law enforcement problems but it would have sent a message that the justice system in St. Louis County would be open to public review of the court’s deliberations. That opportunity has been squandered, and perhaps the law enforcement community in St. Louis County expects that there will be a return to standard operating procedure. We hope that is not the case. We hope that calls for reform in law enforcement policies and practices will be heeded and that St. Louis County—and all the counties of our nation—will take positive steps toward a more just and equitable system of justice.
The American Ethical Union lends its voice, in solidarity with people across our nation, to the chorus of individuals and organizations who are calling for change. May we be peaceable yet loud and persistent in our efforts, may we stand firm until justice prevails.