In August 2014, on a hot Saturday afternoon in Missouri, Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department shot and killed Michael Brown. America was transfixed for months by the protests, the riots, the never-ending news cycle. What was considered a noble, even heroic calling—police work—came to be perceived as the source of America's woes practically overnight. The name of Ferguson became shorthand for institutional racism and police brutality.
I was the chief of police for Ferguson. The incident that resulted in the death of Michael Brown, and the terrible aftermath that all but destroyed the town, happened on my watch.
I spent months on the hot seat, the primary focus of a nation's outrage. It was probably more important to me than to anyone else to understand where that anger came from, to realistically assess how much of it was justified, and how much resulted from people jumping to conclusions based on a dangerous cocktail of provocative media reports and inflammatory pronouncements by politicians and activists, amplifying misperceptions that had spread on the internet faster than any investigation could possibly proceed.
Since resigning my post, in the wake of the U.S. Department of Justice's scathing report, I've had the time and motivation to examine all the things said about Ferguson. Even if there weren't lawsuits that required me to be clear about the facts, I needed to know for my own peace of mind where people came up with the claims they made about my force and our town. As a professional, I wanted to know what we were doing wrong and how to fix what could be fixed, even if my days as chief in Ferguson were over. This book is a product of that examination.
I cannot begin without first addressing two things: the Department of Justice report on Ferguson and the fact that there was so much coverage of events in Ferguson that people say, "I know what I saw. You can't deny it."
You know what you saw. There's a difference between, "I know what I saw," and "I know what I was shown." Even if you came to Ferguson to see with your own eyes, there were places you couldn't have gone, meetings you couldn't have attended. All I ask is that you give me a chance to show you what wasn't shown, to take you where you couldn't have gone.
The DOJ report, though, needs to be discussed right here. Attorney General Eric Holder of the Department of Justice first arrived in Ferguson eleven days after the shooting. He spoke with Michael Brown's mother. He talked of his own experiences with prejudice. He stated publicly that his pledge included, as opposed to simple justice, "robust action," and he stated that "long after the events of August 9 have receded from the headlines, the Justice Department will continue to stand with this community." The things he said and did added up to a tacit confirmation of the public fear that wrong had been done, the shooting had been bad, and that prejudice was a factor. And it was all broadcast live. It not only cemented the Department of Justice's biased stance in the upcoming investigation but also turned up the heat of public anger. He made the job of law enforcement even harder than it already was, putting the public and police both at greater risk.
Attorney General Holder did all of this more than three months before the investigation into the shooting concluded. Three months before the facts were in. His mind was made up before he arrived in town. Following his August 20 pledge and his September resignation, Holder appeared at the Washington Ideas Forum on October 29, where he declared, "I think it's pretty clear that the need for wholesale change in that department [Ferguson] is appropriate." The Los Angeles Times later quoted sources in the Justice Department saying, "The more he gets out in front publicly, the more he will be expected to deliver criminal charges...the situation could reach a tipping point where federal criminal charges would be the only way to vindicate Holder's public comments."
Then the investigations into the shooting concluded and the forensics showed that the narrative that had gained such traction with the public didn't fit the evidence. The officer's version of events did. To those who right here would immediately jump to thinking "staged scene, cover-up," I have included in my new book, Policing Ferguson, Policing America, an appendix so you can read the findings yourself.
Mind you, what I've included is not from an internal police investigation—it's from a federal investigation, because the FBI (a division of the DOJ) was sent to look into this at the same time that Holder was. The FBI came, stayed off camera, and did their jobs. They actually investigated before reaching their conclusions. They brought in the evidence, and it supported the police officer whom Holder had tacitly condemned.
It's one thing for a shopkeeper to say, "I might have made an unfair rush to judgment here," and quite another for the attorney general of the United States to say, "Oops." What are the odds of a fair and unbiased investigation if the person directing it is thoroughly invested in finding something that will vindicate him rather than in finding the truth? The DOJ investigation started with the premise that Ferguson was a swamp of injustice, then sought out and published anything that looked like it supported that position.
I don't want to imply the department I led was immaculate, that no Ferguson officer ever engaged in questionable behavior, and I don't deny that there are systemic problems or that the criminal justice system is in need of lasting reform. But the Ferguson portrayed in that report was an invention, a backwards, angry place that the Justice Department created to make a show of tearing it down.
Seven months after the shooting and three months after the grand jury had ruled that there were no grounds to indict the officer involved, I was summoned to meet with representatives of the DOJ prior to the report's release. As the city's manager, attorney, mayor, and I went into the meeting, we were required to surrender our cell phones and recording devices, as if they didn't want anybody to know what they were about to say.
We listened in horror as the DOJ lead investigator outlined the essential findings in the report. A stunned Stephanie Karr, our city attorney, protested, "You can't say those things. That's not true. It won't hold up in litigation."
The DOJ investigator replied coldly, "Well, we aren't litigating, are we?"
In the court of public opinion, there is no standard of proof, much less a defense team. We knew their report was a distorted misrepresentation, but they counted on the public not to question it. By the time sources like The Wall Street Journal condemned them for the meaningless way they used statistics, for example, it was too late. The damage was done.
I still shake my head over how easily they could publish a report filled with so much that met no evidentiary standards simply by playing to what "everybody knew."
Everybody knew. How quickly a few social media reports grew into "everybody knows."
It was like a chain reaction that got out of control. Social media sources and traditional media sources were feeding off each other. The crowds were responding to what the police were doing. The more it escalated, the more people showed up, and the more people showed up, the more it escalated. It was a toxic feedback loop.
My grim observation in Ferguson was that media representatives and politicians lost objectivity. They did not wait for the facts. True justice stands upon the facts, no matter how much they fly in the face of popular perception. True justice is impartial, and for everyone.