Ferguson: A Question of Excessive Force

By Guy Nave 11-25-2014
Photo via Heather Wilson / PICO.

In a blog I wrote less than two weeks ago, “Justice ... not ‘Just Us’,” I asserted, “Our lives are constituted by relationships. The question is, ‘what is the nature of these relationships?’” I also asserted, “Exploitative relationships result in situations of ‘just us’ rather than justice.”

As I sat listening to Robert P. McCulloch, the StLouis County prosecutor, return the grand jury’s decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of “Mr. Brown,” I kept waiting to hear comments regarding how or why Wilson was justified in firing several shots at an unarmed teenager.

After spending several minutes complaining about the news coverage and the use of social media, the county prosecutor began detailing the inconsistency of eyewitness testimony and the reliability of “physical and scientific evidence.” It was obvious at the outset that the prosecutor was setting the stage for the grand jury’s verdict by discrediting any and all witness accounts that suggested Michael Brown was surrendering or had his hands up before Wilson shot him several times.   

While I was not surprised by the grand jury’s verdict, what I found disappointing in this case and continue to find disappointing in cases like this one, is the failure to discuss the use of “excessive force” by police. While giving his prepared remarks, McCulloch made no comments regarding Wilson’s use of deadly force against an unarmed 18-year-old man.  

During the question-and-answer session, the prosecutor made reference to “justified shootings.” Considering the fact that Michael Brown was unarmed, I fail to understand how firing 10 shots at Michael Brown as he approached officer Wilson was warranted, and how it qualifies as a “justified shooting.”  

What does it say about police training if a trained police officer feels his life is at risk because an unarmed teenager is approaching him? What does it say about police training if a “trained” police officer believes he is exercising “self-defense” by firing 10 times at an approaching unarmed teenager? Do we really believe there is nothing wrong, excessive, or even illegal when a police officer kills an unarmed teenager by firing more than 10 shots at him?  

When exactly does a police officer’s action to subdue a suspect cross the line of what society is willing to accept? Is the notion “by any means necessary” inappropriate for some people but always appropriate for police officers? What exactly qualifies as “excessive force” for police officers, and when does that excessive force become inappropriate?  

In the case of Ferguson, Mo., the use of “excessive force” by police officers seems to far outpace the national average. According to the Washington Post, six other Ferguson officers — five current and one former — have been named in civil rights lawsuits alleging the use of excessive force.  

This means 13 percent of the police department in Ferguson has faced such investigations, compared to a national average of less than 1 percent of all police officers as calculated by the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project. Clearly there is a history of questionable racial relationships in Ferguson.  

While I do not claim to have answers to the questions I ask here, as a biblical scholar, a professor of religion, and an ordained minister, I feel I have a moral and professional obligation to raise such questions and to initiate critical reflection regarding what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior (especially by those in power).  

In response to the grand jury’s verdict, prosecutor McCulloch asserted, “Decisions on matters as serious as charging an individual of a crime simply cannot be decided on anything less than complete critical examination of all available evidence. Anything less is not justice.”  

McCulloch’s comment clearly reflects that he is far more concerned with what he considers to be “justice” for Wilson than he is with justice for Michael Brown and the Brown family.  

While I in no way support the rioting in Ferguson, Martin Luther King, Jr. once noted, “A riot is the language of the unheard,” and there are many in Ferguson who not only feel” unheard but who clearly “have been” unheard.

Rev. Dr. Guy Nave is professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, focusing on the topics of Christianity, the New Testament, and race. He received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Yale University. He also blogs for Luther College's Ideas and Creations page, where some of these posts originally appeared.

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