Aug 15 6:57 PM

Ferguson: While state tries to tamp flames, town police muddy waters

Riot police stand guard as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014.
Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

With the change in tactics that accompanied the change in command for law enforcement in Ferguson, Mo., the tone on the street and the tenor of the reporting also changed Thursday night. After four nights of escalating tensions with an aggressive and aggressively armed St. Louis County police patrolling the streets, Thursday’s move by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to replace that department, already dogged by allegations of racism and brutality, with the State Highway Patrol, under the command of a Ferguson-born-and-bred captain, turned area streets from something that was described as a “war zone” to something that looked more like a celebration (or if not a celebration, a great collective exhale).

But that was Thursday.

Friday morning, Ferguson police released the name of the officer accused of shooting unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown on Saturday afternoon, but they also released the incident report for what is termed a “strong-arm robbery” (which implies a robbery by force, but without use of a weapon, though the description in the report sounds closer to shoplifting) of a cigar store that identifies Brown as one of two suspects. They also released stills from a store surveillance camera that features a figure who resembles Brown in size and dress, and video of a man who also looks like Brown allegedly taking items from a convenience store.

If the Ferguson PD wanted to shift the discussion, or at least muddy the waters, it appeared, at least in the first few hours of coverage, they were somewhat successful.

In social media, and on the traditional outlets predisposed to side with a white cop over a dead, black teen, the week’s narrative was reconstructed to tell the story of bad “urban” kids and police just responding to a crime.

There were, of course, a couple of problems with that story. First, as the intro to the long-running TV series Law & Order used to say, “In the Criminal Justice System, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime, and the District Attorneys who prosecute the offenders.”

The police get to investigate a crime, and, if that works out, apprehend a suspect. The matter of determining guilt and meting out justice belongs to the courts. Even if Michael Brown and the suspect in the surveillance footage are one-and-the-same, it provides zero rationale for the police officer’s actions.

“No one expects an officer to be judge, jury and executioner,” said Missouri State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D, in a Friday afternoon interview on our TV side. “Why was Michael Brown killed by a police officer [without] due process?”

And there was another problem. The Ferguson’s police chief said that Darren Wilson, the officer named as the man who shot and killed Brown, did not know Brown was a suspect in the earlier shoplifting/robbery incidents. Wilson was not trying to apprehend a perpetrator; he was, as the story goes, just trying to get Brown to walk on the sidewalk.

But while the Ferguson police might want the attention turned to Brown’s alleged crimes, attention should probably, in fact, shift to the man normally charged with prosecuting them.

While most in and outside the area were praising Gov. Nixon for his moves Thursday, St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch did not. McCulloch, who is right now the man responsible for investigating Brown’s death for the D.A.’s office, called local reporter Paul Hampel to say that what the governor did in shifting oversight of the Ferguson situation from the St. Louis County police to the State Highway Patrol was “illegal” and “disgraceful.”

Hampel quoted McCulloch (via twitter) as saying, “Nixon denigrated the men and women of the County Police Department and what they've done.”

Nixon clearly had come to some opinion about what the County police forces had done; not sure making it so they couldn’t do more would exactly be “denigrating.”

McCulloch’s comments are not only “tone deaf,” as bmaz1 of emptywheel (who happens to be a practicing trial attorney) put it, it squarely allies his office with the police he is now supposedly charged with investigating.

But the problem goes a little deeper than one night’s prejudicial comments. As Reuters noted (again, via bmaz1), protestors have long questioned the impartiality of McCulloch, a 23-year veteran of this job, because the prosecutor’s police officer father was killed in the line of duty when McCulloch was young.

McCulloch has his defenders in the prosecutor’s office, for sure, but community activists can point to other cases — and now there are those Thursday night comments.

So, while what looked like the first crisis moment (that of the harsh policing tactics of the St. Louis County police provoking street clashes in Ferguson) has passed, the iffy strategy by the Ferguson PD of muddying waters and fanning flames with the robbery reports, and the continued presence of McCulloch in the prosecutor’s chair mean this “situation” (a word that comes up in so many accounts of this story … present company included) is far from resolved.

And that is to say nothing of the underlying problems … but that sounds like a whole other post.

Or two.

Or ….

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