Aug 182014

Owen Courreges

“Get the f*** on the sidewalk.”

Those are the words that allegedly started the entire thing: the struggle, the shooting, the outrage and the riots.

Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department was quoted as uttering these words by Dorian Johnson, who was walking with Michael Brown in the street.  Brown was ultimately shot and killed by Officer Wilson, sparking a national firestorm.

Most of the commentary surrounding the shooting has focused on whether Brown attacked Wilson, or whether Brown reached for Wilson’s gun, or whether Brown was surrendering and fleeing when he was shot.  Those are good questions and they go to the heart of Officer Wilson’s potential legal culpability for Brown’s death.

However, I just can’t shake the creeping notion that the broader, more important issue is whether or not Officer Wilson uttered those six words: “Get the fuck on the sidewalk.”

It is not disputed that the sole reason why Wilson approached Brown and Johnson was because they were walking in the street.  Although surveillance video from a convenience store recently surfaced that supposedly shows brown stealing a box of cigars shortly before the encounter, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson maintains that Officer Wilson was not aware that Brown was suspected of theft.

Rather, Chief Jackson has steadfastly held that Brown and Johnson were approached “because they were walking down the middle of the street blocking traffic.”  To my knowledge, however, neither Jackson nor Wilson have contradicted Johnson’s account concerning exactly what Wilson said to initiate the encounter.

I’d like to think that the investigation into the shooting currently being conducted by the St. Louis County Police Department would resolve the issue, but the information coming out doesn’t inspire much hope.  St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar says that “[t]he genesis of this was a physical confrontation.”

I say it started before that.

When it comes to police professionalism, my regular readers are already aware that I always look to Sgt. Joe Friday, the protagonist played by Jack Webb in the old “Dragnet” police procedural.  In one episode from 1968, Sgt. Friday, ever the consummate police professional, was acting as a community relations officer and lecturing a group of uniformed officers as roll call.

“You ever work with a partner who could start a war just by opening his mouth?” Friday asked rhetorically.  “Usually he says nothing wrong, it’s just his tone of voice.  You’ve all heard it. ‘Yes, sir’ or ‘yes, sir.’”

“Or the use of terms that are offensive to some people,” Friday continued.  “For example, we all know a negro resents being called ‘boy.’ So would I, for that matter.  And if we use that term, he’s probably going to get mad and probably want to fight.

“Now, what’s the sense in antagonizing somebody when you know how to avoid it? Leave them with a good taste in their mouth, and don’t forget who you’re working for.”

If Officer Wilson truly did approach Michael Brown and tell him to “[g]et the fuck on the sidewalk,” he might as well have removed all pretense and simply called him “boy.” Barking orders laced with profanity is beyond mere disrespect; it’s practically a challenge, particularly to a teenage male.  A violent encounter became far more likely, if not a foregone conclusion.

This doesn’t mean that Brown’s actions after that were at all legal or appropriate, but it does mean that Wilson may have provoked Brown.  Even if the shooting is found to be justified, Officer Wilson may be a bad cop who does more harm than good in the field.

Here in New Orleans, we face the same problem.  I’ve had countless people regal me with tales of being barked at rudely in “command voice” by NOPD officers.  They typically found it provocative and inappropriate, but believed it was so commonplace that it didn’t even warrant filing a complaint (a complaint that would never be acted upon anyway).

It has also happened to me personally on multiple occasions, and it certainly left a bad taste in my mouth.  For better or worse, there are officers who seem to believe that screaming curt orders at citizens constitutes an effective means of executing their duties.  It’s a part of the reason we’re under a federal consent decree.

A cop who starts a war whenever he opens his mouth has no business being a cop.  Alas, there does not seem to be any effective means of dealing with the problem; being rude and profane rarely results in officer discipline.  Simply behaving like a jerk typically doesn’t cost an officer his job, even if it’s a chronic and obvious problem.

It frankly appears that people in the service industry are held to higher standards for professionalism than police.  Your typical waiter or bartender can’t dish out rudeness routinely, even when they’re frequently under stress and dealing with difficult customers.  Police can, and it’s because the system of discipline is simply broken.

In Ferguson, this lack of professionalism may well have been the spark that lit the flame.  If Officer Wilson had been polite, respectful, and non-confrontational, would any of this have happened?  If Officer Wilson were effective at his job, would a simple stop for walking in the street have escalated to the point where a teenager lay dead in the street?

These questions resonate nationwide.  What happened in Ferguson could easily happen here.  If we want to ease that risk, we need to raise our standards.  We need to get rid of the cops who won’t treat citizens with respect.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  20 Responses to “Owen Courreges: Fighting words, in Ferguson and New Orleans”

  1. I hear there’s a leadership position opening up in NOPD. Hopefully whoever fills it reads this post. Spot on.

  2. Without “credible” eyewitnesses, few answers can be expected in the near future. The medical examiner’s autopsy report seems to contradict the account of Michael Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson’s. So far, no other witnesses have come forward with additional and accurate information.
    As far as the residents’ rage-fueled response to the shooting, there could have been some immediate changes to personnel that might have lessened the fury. First, I would have immediately removed Chief Thomas Jackson from the scene and forbade him from making any comments. It was obvious, from the beginning, Jackson had no idea about who and where his responsibilities were. Also, it was immediately apparent that he had no understanding of the people he was sworn “to serve and protect”. His statements and responses were completely without common sense, let alone calm and considered. He claimed that he “had” to release the video from the convenience store because “the media pressured him”. Since when does the media dictate to law enforcement in the performance of their duty?
    A measure of calm appeared only when the local police were relieved of command and the Highway Patrol brought in Captain Ron Johnson, who, as a born and raised individual from that very neighborhood, almost immediately replaced rage with patient and sympathetic control. Captain Johnson demonstrated the true power of his intelligence and leadership, both completely lacking from the local authorities.
    In the meantime, Dr. Bader, the medical examiner, contradicted some of the rumors about the shooting. Michael Brown was NOT shot in the back as someone (who?) claimed.
    The authorities knew from the beginning the name of the police officer that show Mr.Brown. They could have immediately removed that officer to a safe location and released his name so that the public would, at least, know that a proper investigation was going to begin….immediately.
    Two major aspects of this horrible situation have presented themselves: First, the cries for “justice” were actually demands for “revenge”, fueling the escalating anger of the mob. Second, there are a few individuals who have seized an opportunity to loot, burn and do violence for their own purposes, a situation that is almost impossible to monitor or control, the result being the erosion of the good will introduced by Captain Ron Johnson.

    • best_in_show,

      The examiner’s report only slightly contradicts Johnson’s account, as I note in more detail in a comment below. There are a few other witnesses that corroborate the major points of Johnson’s account, though. They might all be lying, but there’s a reason why this is such a major controversy.

      I agree about the rest of how this was mishandled. My point, however, is that there is a widespread failure to require police to behave professionally and not escalate situations like this. I still seriously wonder how a simple stop for walking in the street could lead to the shooting of an unarmed teenager. How did the officer allow the situation to get so far out of control? How did he allow it to escalate? Johnson’s account of how it all started at least answers those questions to some degree.

  3. Regardless of what was said or why, a gun was drawn too quickly–suggesting that this officer didn’t start the war with his words, but with his attitude towards black citizens in general. I would argue that the war started that morning when Officer Wilson got out of bed or, more likely, many years earlier when, as a child, he was taught that some lives are worth more than others. That is, if he was taught that those other lives were worth anything at all.

    • Matt,

      Brown allegedly attacked Officer Wilson and tried to take his gun, and it was only at that point that Wilson drew on Brown. Supposedly Wilson has told others that Brown turned and started to suddenly rush him after fleeing.

      Even if all that is true, though, it still raises other questions. I really do wonder what non-lethal weaponry the Ferguson PD has at their disposal. Even assuming that Brown was violent and repeatedly attacked Officer Wilson, it’s odd that Wilson couldn’t use a taser, or pepper spray, or just a night stick. Presumably Wilson is well-trained enough to take down an unarmed suspect without lethal force.

      • Agreed, Owen, but we all know where an officer wears his regulation firearm. It’s ridiculous to believe that Brown was reaching into a squad car to grab a pistol and remove it from the holster. Either Wilson had already drawn his firearm and trained it on the young man to intimidate him or he had his hands on Brown and pulled him into the cab. Either way, it’s apparent that Wilson was in the wrong here. And any presentation of a gun for walking (even while black) is unnecessary force. Six shots for fleeing? Even if “resisting arrest”? That’s not unprofessional. That’s unconscionable.

      • I think the most important point is that Brown and perhaps Johnson knew that they had just committed a crime. I would suspect that they felt Officer Wilson was looking at them for that crime. I feel like, fearing arrest, Brown, who had just strong armed someone else, tried to over power Wilson in his vehicle. Taser use in a vehicle is not an option. Wilson, protecting his weapon, fires and hits Brown several times, non-lethal wounds, Brown runs away, Wilson follows. Brown turns around to go at him again, Wilson fires kill shots even as Brown is falling down.
        However, your point about attitude is well stated. I just think you picked the wrong incident to express your thoughts.

  4. Agreed–spot on

  5. Owen, you are assuming that the witness is being truthful, he also said Brown was shot in the back, as you know by now that didn’t happen. He also failed to mention that he and Brown had just stole from a store. What we need to get rid of are attorneys that think they know everything.

    • Mike,

      Actually, I believe that Johnson said that Brown was primarily shot in the front. He said that the gun went off once while he and Officer Wilson were struggling (facing each other) and firing continued while Brown fled (with his back turned) and that additional shots were fired when Brown allegedly turned around and surrendered (facing Officer Wilson again).

      It might be that Johnson was mistaken about shots being fired when Brown was fleeing, or that Officer Wilson did fire during that time but none of those shots actually hit Brown. At this point it’s definitely a discrepancy, but not a major one.

      I’m just wondering why nobody has contradicted Johnson’s statement as to how Wilson initiated the encounter. Perhaps Johnson was lying and Wilson was actually polite and professional, but I haven’t heard any opposing story and no recording, if one exists, has been released.

  6. Very good article. It’s all about respect.

  7. There is a major misconception that Officer Wilson was well trained in the use of weaponry and in handling confrontation. We know, in our own experiences in New Orleans, that not all law-enforcement personnel are screened properly when they apply to become police officers. The fact that so few conduct themselves improperly is short of miraculous. My remarks in no way attempt to jump to conclusions about Officer Wilson, only that he MAY not have had the proper training. Judging from the actions and statements from his superior, Thomas Jackson, even HE is sadly lacking in professional tactics. It is no wonder that officers under his command might be a danger to the community instead of observing their SWORN DUTY to “serve and protect” ALL citizens regardless of color or position. This, on the face of it, is utopian at worst.
    To repeat, without credible EYEWITNESSES the truth will be hard to come by. Only under cross-examination will witnesses’ testimony be stripped of hearsay and speculation. A most important question will be to what extent did Officer Wilson provoke Michael Brown with his language on the street and how threatened he felt from the physical exchange with Brown. For example, it is vague as to what, if any, physical damage did Officer Wilson sustain.
    If there is a solution to this horror, it is to quickly convene a hearing and perhaps charges being brought against Officer Wilson. What the mob wants is not justice, but bloody revenge. This cannot happen in a civilized society. When a criminal element gets the upper hand (burning businesses, looting, shooting at cops and each other), all is lost.

  8. As a matter of legal causation, you are wrong in your assertion that the initial cause of the confrontation was the offensive statement. The incident clearly started with the stroll down the middle of the street. Of course some causes in fact are more significant than others. In any event, offensive or “fighting words” do not justify an assault. I think it is still unclear who struck the first blow. I certainly agree that police officers should not curse.

  9. I’ll say that regardless of how the actual encounter went down, Owen’s larger point is correct: there are a lot of police officers who talk to citizens like inmates. There needs to be a distinction made.

  10. Deux,

    I’m not wrong because that’s not what I was arguing. First of all, legal causation isn’t really the issue in a criminal trial — it’s whether there was justification. I certainly don’t believe that profanity from the officer justified Brown’s actions, whatever they were, and I said just that.

    Secondly, when you’re looking broadly at the incident to determine whether there was police misconduct or improper police work, particularly to determine who initially escalated the encounter, then you of course have to look at what was said. That’s what I’m looking at.

    • Causation is definitely an issue in criminal trials. I’m not sure what “initial escalation,” is intended to mean, but it does suggest that the incident had already begun ,Again, I agree that the police should not curse suspects, even mfing scumbags.

      • Deux,

        Causation is rarely an issue in criminal trials; it’s normally cut-and-dried. It’s certainly not what I’m arguing here. Again, I’m arguing more about the quality of the police work here and the over-arching issue of how distrust of the police reached the point where this shooting resulted in rioting.

        Basically, Wilson initiated the encounter, and if he did it in the way Johnson described, he immediately escalated it. We seem to agree on that, at least.

  11. best_in_show,

    Fair enough. Wilson may not have been properly trained, resulting in immediate resort to deadly force.

    I understand that the investigation is ongoing and it’s going to be a while before the truth becomes clear — if it ever does — but for the purposes of this column I’d still like to know for certain whether Wilson admits initiating the encounter with those six words. It doesn’t make him legally at fault, but if that’s how he deals with citizens, it makes him a bad cop.

    If people want to understand why citizens don’t trust the police and why people are rioting, it all starts with a lack of professionalism. If the police show restraint and a calm, professional attitude, they earn public trust. If they display a bad attitude and dish out disrespect, they lose it and the public starts to view the situation as us vs. them.

    The situation appears to be worse in Ferguson than in most places, but a lot of cities, including New Orleans, have this problem.

  12. Owen,
    Therein lies the basic problem in all professions: professionalism.
    But, in the case of the police, when a person puts on a uniform and given a gun, a whole set of different problems arise. Granting an enormous amount of authority to a person who is not properly trained can result in tragic and sometimes fatal results. If Thomas Jackson is any example, that is the key to what happened in Ferguson. HE is the least professional individual, other than Officer Wilson, in the police department of that area. Jackson knew immediately that Wilson had shot someone. Instead of calling that officer in for questioning, Jackson, instead chose to do the opposite and to cause this terrible event to play out and into the hands of those who would use any opportunity to enrage the community. Most of the citizens would have accepted an immediate response to the shooting by the police initiating a “professional” procedure. This whole event might start all police departments to examine how they should handle similar affairs. A good start would be to disperse the concept that the police have carte blanch to intimidate and throw their weight around just because they wear the badge and carry a gun. The many previous “sensitivity training” sessions have been mostly worthless.
    You probably never see people walking in the middle of the streets in the uptown section, but, I can assure you that it happens all the time in the French Quarter and the Marigny area. Tourists think that this is a “theme park” and defy motorists driving on our streets. Fortunately, we are so used to it that confrontations seldom occur. I probably yell at tourists blocking traffic more than anyone else. But I don’t use profanity (although I am tempted).

  13. After a recent auto accident where I was hit by a truck and the driver claimed I hit him, I put a $50 dash-cam in my car. Do the same with cops. They all should be outfitted with miniature cams on their uniforms. When people know they are being recorded they seem to behave themselves. I also wonder why there wasn’t a dash-cam running in the cops car in Ferguson.

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