Untruth and Consequences in Ferguson

We’re only now starting to learn what happened the day Michael Brown was shot. But how much will the truth really matter at this point?

Scott Olson/Getty

It’s time we admit something: Increasingly, it’s starting to look like Officer Darren Wilson acted appropriately that fateful day in Ferguson.

Now, until now, I have not weighed in on the Michael Brown shooting—except peripherally. I wrote about how it made conservatives lose faith in the police, discussed the temptation for journalists to become part of the story they are covering, and suggested the media’s incessant coverage might have fanned the Ferguson flames.

But even for someone like me—a commentator whose job description includes prematurely weighing in on any issue that captures the nation’s attention—the fundamental question of culpability was never an easy one. It always felt like a “he said he said” situation—with ideological tribalism, not evidence, guiding us to assume our positions on our respective sides.

So I avoided it.

Frankly, we still don’t know enough to say conclusively what happened the day Brown was shot. But it’s no longer absurd to speculate. As the official autopsy report obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch demonstrates, Brown was shot in the hand at close range—with gunpowder residue in the wound. Both findings seem to buttresses Wilson’s contention that there was a struggle over the officer’s pistol. Additionally, a forensic pathologist interviewed by the paper noted that “the autopsy did not support witnesses who have claimed Brown was shot while running away from Wilson, or with his hands up.”

And there’s more: The Washington Post is now reporting that “more than a half-dozen unnamed black witnesses have provided testimony to a St. Louis County grand jury that largely supports Wilson’s account of events of Aug. 9,” according to “several people familiar with the investigation.”

Again, there are lingering questions, to be sure, but mounting evidence suggests this this case is much more complex than many previously thought. But let me get this straight: Two and a half months after the shooting and the protests and the rioting, we are just now starting to find out what really happened? And the only reason we’re finding this out now is that it was leaked?

There were always a few poking holes in the image of a Brown as a “gentle giant," but the dominant media narrative—which, in fairness, was buttressed by witness accounts—seemed to be that he was murdered in cold blood, with his hands up, for the crime of being black. There were, of course, attempts to debunk this—and leaks to tarnish his image—but those voices were mostly overshadowed by a media that was in many cases had already admittedly sided with the protesters.

Now, the obvious thing for me to do here is to go all Shep Smith on you and shame the media for hyping and prejudging this case—for prematurely reporting on rumor and innuendo and helping stoke unrest. And that would be a valid, if pointless, thing for me to do.

But perhaps we can find a way to avoid this from happening again. I think the first obvious thing we can do is videotape every police interaction—body cams, in-car cameras—you name it. And declassify them. Video solves a lot of mysteries. We don’t know what happened to Bristol Palin, but we do know what happened to Ray Rice’s wife.

And rather than viewing it as a violation of privacy, police officers should welcome this development. Because, here’s the thing: There are a lot of good ethical and practical reasons why the police can’t really defend themselves in the court of public opinion—at least, not adequately. First, since they should always ostensibly be on the side of finding the truth, police PR campaigns create an obvious conflict of interest, making it look like they are engaged in the Blue Code of Silence. Additionally, any information they release could potentially poison a jury pool. I could go on…

This puts the police at an obvious disadvantage. Maybe in the old days, you could afford to wait a few months and let the process take care of itself—allow the slow wheels of justice grind on. But one gets the sense that this is impractical in the era of Twitter and 24-7 news coverage. Shutting up is a bad idea. You see this a lot when individuals who are accused of something decide to clam up, often under the advice of their attorney. When people accused of something make smart legal decisions, they are often also making very unwise public relations decisions. And I think the same thing applies to this situation.

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The truth is that first impressions matter. In politics, once one candidate “defines’ the other candidate (before he can define himself) it’s nearly impossible to change the narrative. It’s game over. Once people believe something, they are disinclined to change their minds—even when overwhelming evidence suggests they should. But in the court of law these, initial perceptions matter little. Darren Wilson might have been convicted in the court of public opinion, but all that matters to the law is that—if he’s innocent—he should be be exonerated (or, in this case, simply not prosecuted) once the evidence is shown.

In the real world, however, public opinion does matter—and not just for Officer Wilson. People who believe the original narrative that was repeated ad nauseam back in August might not trust the newly-revealed evidence—or (and this speaks to the media’s culpability) might not even learn about the recent findings, which haven’t garnered nearly as much attention as the story was getting back in August and September. And how will the people who still believe Brown was murdered in cold blood react if Wilson gets off scot-free?

Keep in mind that retroactive facts and evidence arguably matter less than first impressions—especially if we don’t vigorously push back on false narratives. And so, as Jonah Goldberg notes, the story we were originally told about Brown’s shooting “will live on for decades to come. That’s in no small part because many decent Americans have locked themselves into the belief that the heroic chapter of the civil-rights movement can never end. The story must go on so they can continue to cast themselves as the heroes.”

Regardless of whether or not officer Wilson is cleared, the original narrative will likely shape the context regarding how the next incident—and there’s always a next incident—is framed and perceived. And many—if not most minds—Michael Brown will always be a gentle giant.