Saturday, November 28 , 2015, 10:44 am | Fair 60º

Diane Dimond: Ferguson a Cautionary Tale That Policing, PR Must Go Hand in Hand

By Diane Dimond | @DiDimond |

It has been a monumental, multilayered tragedy of errors.

Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black teen was shot dead in Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer. A scuffle at the patrol car, which has still not been fully explained, sparked the deadly encounter. And immediately, various groups of people jumped to conclusions, making the situation so much worse than it needed to be.

Overly passionate, fact-lacking comments from Ferguson residents were broadcast nationwide, and citizens across the country heard variations of this storyline: A white police officer shot a mild-mannered, college-bound black teenager in the back even though the teen had his hands up and kept saying, “Don’t shoot.”

The retelling of that narrative inflamed many across the country and massive, violent protests broke out on the main drag near where Brown had been killed. Locals took to the streets looting, burning down businesses, firing guns and committing general mayhem. Outside agitators joined the protests from faraway states and kept the outrage at a fever pitch.

There was no voice of reason in the hardscrabble suburb of St. Louis giving citizens the important news that an investigation was already under way and they should calm down. The police chief and the mayor, obviously not schooled in public relations, failed to provide any sort of coherent account of what had happened to counter the media-fueled storyline. Missouri’s governor was invisible.

And so violence erupted — and escalated — night after night. The Ferguson Police Department, with just 50 officers, was overwhelmed and then overreacted by donning riot gear and hitting the streets in armored vehicles. Tear gas, curfews and the calling in of the National Guard only inflamed the situation. Reporters just doing their jobs were arrested, and the story veered off course to discuss why.

Protesters demanded immediate justice, which is, of course, not how justice is achieved.

So did the usual swarm of outside professionals who swooped in to get their network-TV face time. Attorney Benjamin Crump of Florida announced he was there to get justice for the dead man’s family and declared Brown’s death was an “execution in broad daylight.” After that inflammatory statement, Crump called for calm.

The Rev. Al Sharpton flew in from his MSNBC television gig in New York. Sharpton called the young man he had never met a “gentle giant” and was especially incensed that the police would dare to release a video of Brown, captured just minutes before his death, which appeared to show the 6-foot-4-inch, 290-pound teenager strong-arming a store clerk while walking out with a $50 fistful of stolen cigars.

“Have we lost our decency when we don’t even let people mourn their loved ones without you trying to smear them with things that have nothing to do with the situation at hand?” Sharpton demanded in outraged tones.

No matter the fact that many members of the very media Sharpton purports to represent had filed Freedom of Information requests for that video, and police were compelled to release it.

I maintain that video has much to do with “the situation at hand” and with the ongoing investigation. Brown’s activities that afternoon are crucial to his state of mind.

When Officer Darren Wilson rolled up and asked Brown and his friend to stop walking in the middle of the street and get on the sidewalk, it is reasonable to assume Brown thought the officer was there to arrest him for the robbery. Brown might have felt emboldened by the theft and unafraid of confronting the officer as he sat in his patrol vehicle where the first shot was fired.

Lost in the often shallow reporting of this story was an early quote from St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar. The morning after the shooting, he told reporters that as Wilson was exiting his vehicle, Brown “allegedly pushed the police officer back into his car ... (and) physically assaulted the police officer.”

“Within the police car there was a struggle over the officer’s weapon,” Belmar said. “At least one shot (was) fired in the car.” Wilson was reported to have suffered an orbital blowout fracture to his eye socket and significant bruises on his face.

That’s opposite of what eyewitness Darien Johnson, who was walking with Brown, told police. He said the officer first grabbed Brown through the car window. He said his friend had not tried to take the officer’s gun but had been “shot like an animal” as he tried to run away.

An autopsy by renowned medical examiner Dr. Michael Baden revealed Brown had not been shot in the back as was so widely reported. We also learned Brown had marijuana in his system, another important fact.

And now, police sources tell the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “more than a dozen witnesses” have corroborated Wilson’s version that he was defending himself against a vicious attack.

What else was reported incorrectly as this saga spun so out of control? When did we stop waiting for all the facts of a case to come out before making up our minds? Knee-jerk conclusions are so often wrong.

Maybe the truth lies somewhere in-between the official version of the incident and the eyewitness account. A grand jury will hear all the evidence and sort it out, I am sure.

Ferguson is a cautionary tale. There are countless other places just like it where poverty, lack of education, chronic joblessness and frustration over police tactics within the minority community seem to be at a constant simmer just waiting to boil over.

But this idea that some are preaching — that police officers routinely and without provocation shoot at young men of color — must not be allowed to stand. I’m not saying it never happens, but realize: When officers are attacked, they are trained to defend themselves. If they feel as though their life is in danger, they are trained to empty their gun if need be to stop the threat and keep the community safe.

This idea that we should immediately vilify the officer’s behavior and ignore the conduct of the other person is a foolish notion. That civilians should get due process but police officers automatically should not is about as wise as believing everything you first hear when a situation like this erupts.

Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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