Many people in Ferguson, Missouri are protesting the police shooting death of “unarmed black teenager” (meaning 18-year-old adult) Michael Brown. What should matter in this case are primarily the facts surrounding the shooting. Unfortunately, two very different accounts of those facts have been presented.
Here is what happened, according to police, as reported by the Wall Street Journal:
Authorities said the shooting occurred around noon Saturday, when a Ferguson police officer encountered two men in the street. When the officer tried to exit his vehicle, Chief Belmar said one of the two pushed the officer back into the cruiser. The suspect allegedly assaulted the officer in the car and the two struggled over his gun. At least one shot was fired inside the vehicle. A few moments later, Chief Belmar said, the officer allegedly fired multiple shots outside the vehicle that killed the suspect, about 35 feet from the cruiser.
If that account is accurate, and if Brown is the “suspect” in question, then arguably Brown attempted to murder a police officer. But that would not justify the officer shooting Brown at a distance, assuming Brown was running away.
But now consider the accounts of Brown’s associate and another witness, as reported by the Los Angeles Times:
Dorin Johnson, a friend of Brown’s, told Fox 2 that he and Brown were walking in the street when the police car pulled up. The officer said to “get the eff onto the sidewalk,” he recounted. Johnson said the officer reached out of the car window and grabbed Brown around the neck.
Another witness, Piaget Crenshaw, said she saw police chase Brown. “He ran for his life,” she said. “They shot him and he fell. He put his arms up to let them know that he was compliant and he was unarmed, and they shot him twice more and he fell to the ground and died.”
Whether the officer shot Brown as Brown was running away is independent of whether Brown assaulted the police officer and reached for his gun. If Brown assaulted the officer, then Brown was in the wrong. If the officer shot Brown while Brown was running away, then the officer was in the wrong. So, yes, it’s possible, depending on the facts, that both parties were in the moral and legal wrong. It’s also possible Brown was entirely innocent. It’s also possible that we’ll never know exactly what happened, because the case will devolve to conflicting eye-witness accounts.
A couple of related points: First, as I’ve argued, police should video record everything they do. If we had a clear video of what happened, we’d almost certainly be able to firmly nail down the relevant facts. Second, the fact that some of the protesters are using the incident as an excuse to loot and vandalize local shops is reprehensible. Even if Brown was unjustly killed, that hardly excuses protesters in victimizing others.