“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 UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.