The Police Chief, Thomas Jackson, first released security-camera shots of the late Michael Brown apparently stealing a five-dollar box of cigarillos from a convenience store. So the 18-year old shot dead by Chief Jackson's officer was no longer a "gentle giant" en route to college but just another crappy third-rate violent teen n'er-do-well.
Then the chief gave a second press conference. Why would he do that? Well, he'd somehow managed to create the impression in his first press conference that the officer who killed Mr Brown was responding to the robbery. In fact, that was not the case. The Ferguson policeman was unaware that Brown was a robbery suspect at the time he encountered him and shot him dead. Which is presumably why Chief Jackson was leaned on to give his second press conference and tidy up the mess from the first. So we have an officer who sees two young men, unwanted for any crime, walking down the middle of the street and stops his cruiser. Three minutes later one of them is dead.
On the other hand, Jackson further confused matters by suggesting that he noticed Brown had cigars in his hand and might be the suspect.
It's important, when something goes wrong, to be clear about what it is that's at issue. Talking up Michael Brown as this season's Trayvonesque angel of peace and scholarship was foolish, and looting stores in his saintly memory even worse. But this week's pictures from Ferguson, such as the one above, ought to be profoundly disquieting to those Americans of a non-looting bent.
The most basic problem is that we will never know for certain what happened. Why? Because the Ferguson cruiser did not have a camera recording the incident. That's simply not credible. "Law" "enforcement" in Ferguson apparently has at its disposal tear gas, riot gear, armored vehicles and machine guns ...but not a dashcam. That's ridiculous. I remember a few years ago when my one-man police department in New Hampshire purchased a camera for its cruiser. It's about as cheap and basic a police expense as there is.
Last year, my meek mild-mannered mumsy office manager was pulled over by an angry small-town cop in breach of her Fourth Amendment rights. The state lost in court because the officer's artful narrative and the usual faked-up-after-the-fact incident report did not match the dashcam footage. Three years ago, I was pulled over by an unmarked vehicle in Vermont and (to put it mildly) erroneously ticketed. In court, I was withering about the department's policy of no dashcams for unmarked cars, and traffic cops driving around pretending to be James Bond but without the super-secret spy camera. The judge loathed me (as judges tend to), but I won that case. In 2014, when a police cruiser doesn't have a camera, it's a conscious choice. And it should be regarded as such.
And, if we have to have federal subsidy programs for municipal police departments, we should scrap the one that gives them the second-hand military hardware from Tikrit and Kandahar and replace it with one that ensures every patrol car has a camera.
As for what's happened in the days since the shooting, I've written a lot in recent months about the appalling militarization of the police in America, and I don't have much to add. But I did get a mordant chuckle out of this line from Kathy Shaidle on the green-camouflaged officers pictured above:
Shouldn't a 'Ferguson' camo pattern be, like, 7/11 & Kool-Aid logos?
Indeed. To camouflage oneself in the jungles of suburban America, one should be clothed in Dunkin' Donuts and Taco Bell packaging. A soldier wears green camo in Vietnam to blend in. A policeman wears green camo in Ferguson to stand out - to let you guys know: We're here, we're severe, get used to it.
This is not a small thing. The point about "the thin blue line" is that it's blue for a reason. As I wrote a couple of months ago:
"The police" is a phenomenon of the modern world. It would be wholly alien, for example, to America's Founders. In the sense we use the term today, it dates back no further than Sir Robert Peel's founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. Because Londoners associated the concept with French-style political policing and state control, they were very resistant to the idea of a domestic soldiery keeping them in line. So Peel dressed his policemen in blue instead of infantry red, and instead of guns they had wooden truncheons.
So, when the police are dressed like combat troops, it's not a fashion faux pas, it's a fundamental misunderstanding of who they are. Forget the armored vehicles with the gun turrets, forget the faceless, helmeted, anonymous Robocops, and just listen to how these "policemen" talk. Look at the video as they're arresting the New York Times and Huffington Post reporters. Watch the St Louis County deputy ordering everyone to leave, and then adding: "This is not up for discussion."
Really? You're a constable. You may be carrying on like the military commander of an occupying army faced with a rabble of revolting natives, but in the end you're a constable. And the fact that you and your colleagues in that McDonald's are comfortable speaking to your fellow citizens like this is part of the problem. The most important of the "nine principles of good policing" (formulated by the first two commissioners of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 and thereafter issued to every officer joining the force) is a very simple one: The police are the public and the public are the police. Not in Ferguson. Long before the teargassing begins and the bullets start flying, the way these guys talk is the first indication of how the remorseless militarization has corroded the soul of American policing.
Which brings us back to the death of Michael Brown. Let's assume for the sake of argument that everything the police say about this incident is correct. In that case, whether or not the fatal shooting of Mr Brown is a crime, it's certainly a mistake. When an unarmed shoplifter* in T-shirt and shorts with a five-buck cigar box in one hand has to be shot dead, you're doing it wrong.
American police have grown too comfortable with the routine use of lethal force. To reprise a few statistics I cited three months ago:
So the biggest government in the free world chooses not to keep statistics on how many people get shot by law enforcement. So be it. It does keep figures on "justifiable homicide", which it defines as "the killing of a felon by a law enforcement official in the line of duty". When is a police homicide not "justifiable"? Ah, well. At any rate, for 2012, the corpse count was 410.
By comparison, for the years 2012 and 2013 in England and Wales:
'No fatal police shootings.'
In the Netherlands:
'The average for the last 35 years is three dead and 15 injured...'
In Germany, a nation of 80 million people, police in 2011 fatally shot six persons. In Denmark, police shot 11 people in 11 years, and this was felt to be so disturbing that the National Police Commissioner held an inquiry into why his cops had gotten so trigger-happy. In Australia, 41 people were shot by police in eight years, and the then Justice Minister Amanda Vanstone (whose friend thinks I'm "eminently shaggable", but I digress) thought that that was too high. In Iceland, police have fatally shot just one suspect. That's one guy in the entire history of the country. He was killed by police last December.
So comparisons between the kill rates from American police and those of other developed nations aren't worth bothering with. Indeed, the "justifiable homicides" of US cops are more like the total murder count for other advanced societies:
In Oz, the total number of murders per year is about 270, so a nation of 23 million would have to increase by 50 per cent to commit as many homicides as American law enforcement. In Canada, whose urban police departments have absorbed certain American practices, a dozen or so people get shot dead by cops each year, which is again somewhat short of the US rate. Indeed, that 2012 "justifiable homicide" figure of 410 compares to a total Canadian homicide count for 2011 of 598. In other words, in America 120,000 or so full-time law enforcement officers rack up the same number of homicides as about 24 million Canadians.
That strikes me as on the high side.
In Ferguson, both parties agree that the first shot was fired from inside the car. The rest were fired by the officer when he'd got out of the car, with Chief Jackson conceding there could have been ten bullets fired. For purposes of comparison:
In 2011 the German police fired 85 bullets. That's all of them. The entire police force. The whole country. Eighty-five bullets in one year. That's seven bullets per month. One bullet for every million German citizens.
So the Ferguson PD used as many bullets on Michael Brown as the Polizei used on ten million Germans. But, by American standards, that's relatively restrained. The same year as those German figures - 2011 - the Miami PD blew through the Polizei's annual bullet allowance on just one traffic incident:
Police killed Raymond Herisse, 22, of Boynton Beach in a barrage of gunfire after they said he refused an order to pull over while speeding down a crowded Collins Avenue in his Hyundai...
Twelve officers - from Miami Beach and Hialeah - unleashed more than 100 rounds at Herisse, police said. The hail of bullets also struck and wounded three bystanders.
By comparison, those 85 German bullets per annum were aimed somewhat more precisely:
85 Patronen verfeuerten Polizeibeamte in Deutschland im Jahr 2011 bundesweit auf der Jagd nach Verbrechern, 49 davon waren Warnschüsse. 36-mal gaben die Polizisten gezielte Schüsse ab. Dabei wurden 15 Personen verletzt und sechs getötet, wie aus einer Statistik der Deutschen Hochschule der Polizei im westfälischen Münster hervorgeht.
That's to say, of those 85 bullets, 49 were warning shots. America no longer does "the warning shot". But whatever happened to "the shot"? With the 36 non-warning bullets fired by German police that year, they killed six people and wounded fifteen. That's a bullet-and-three-quarters per target. Whether shooting to kill or to disable, they're trying to do it with a single shot. American policing takes a third of Germany's annual bullet allowance just to off a dog:
In July, three officers fired 26 shots at a pit bull that had bitten a chunk out of an officer's leg in a Bronx apartment building. And there have been other episodes: in 1995, in the Bronx, officers fired 125 bullets during a bodega robbery, with one officer firing 45 rounds.
Just what happened on Saturday is still being investigated. Police experts, however, suggested in interviews yesterday that contagious shooting played a role in a fatal police shooting in Queens Saturday morning. According to the police account, five officers fired 50 shots at a bridegroom who, leaving his bachelor party at a strip club, twice drove his car into a minivan carrying plainclothes police officers investigating the club.
The bridegroom, Sean Bell, who was to be married hours later, was killed, and two of his friends were wounded, one critically.
Three months ago I asked this question:
Are American civilians so different from Europeans or Aussies or Kiwis or Canadians that they have to be policed as if they're cornered rebels in an ongoing civil war?
A startling number of American readers wrote to say, with remarkable insouciance, that the US could not afford the luxury of First World policing. Large tracts of America had too many illegal immigrants, drug gangs, racial grievances, etc. Maybe. But the problem is that, increasingly, this is the only style of law enforcement America's police culture teaches - not only for the teeming favelas, but for the leafy suburbs and the rural backwaters and the college-town keg party, too.
Which is to say that one day, unless something changes, we will all be policed like Ferguson.
*NOTE: Several readers have queried my use of the term "shoplifter", insisting that this was a "strongarm robbery", the phrase du jour. It's not clear whether, legally speaking, this was any kind of robbery, in the sense of a prosecutable crime: The store owner did not report any theft and did not volunteer the video as evidence. Instead, the Ferguson PD went to a judge to get a court order to make the store owner cough it up on the grounds that it might contain something useful to them.
And then the chief says he had no choice but to release it because he was getting Freedom of Information requests for it. Which makes even less sense...