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A Repeat of the Past: The Michael Brown Shooting and Its Civil Rights Implications

The tragic events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri have unfolded numerous times over the years and across the country.

Photo by Overpass Light Brigade (Flickr)

Editor’s Note: The Campbell Law Observer recently held its write-on competition for the Fall 2014 semester. This article was awarded the second highest overall score by our editorial staff.

On the afternoon of August 9, 2014, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer.  It soon came to light that Brown was unarmed at the time of the shooting.

Anyone watching the news following this event would notice the emphasis on race.  Brown was a young African American man.  Darren Wilson, the police officer that shot Brown, was white like the majority of Ferguson’s police force.

The day after the shooting there was a candlelight vigil to honor Brown, but tensions boiled over and things soon turned violent.  Businesses were vandalized and looted, resulting in the arrest of more than thirty people and two police officers being injured.  In the weeks that followed, a mixture of peaceful protests and riots persisted.  This tragedy has captured America’s attention—Reverend Al Sharpton traveled to Ferguson to demand justice; President Obama released a statement; and the FBI and Justice Department commenced an investigation.

Throughout America’s history, there have been numerous events that echo the current situation in Ferguson…

Many people who witnessed the historic civil rights movement and protests cannot help but link Brown’s shooting to previous riots that erupted out of frustration with police conduct. Photos released out of Ferguson show police officers pointing weapons at the protesters, drawing an eerie similarity to actions taken during the civil rights movement in Alabama. Throughout America’s history, there have been numerous events that echo the current situation in Ferguson, including riots as far back as the early 1910s, continuing through the civil rights movement and riots in the 1960s, and riots in Miami in the late 1980s.

The most frightening similar situation to that of the Ferguson riots is that of the Rodney King twenty-two years ago.  Los Angeles erupted in riots after four white police officers who severely beat King, an African American man, were acquitted of assault.  The riots claimed the lives of fifty-three people and many more were injured.  Also like the Ferguson riots,  the riots in Los Angeles quieted down only after the federal government stepped in.

It has been determined that Brown was shot over six times, audio has been released showing a pause in rapid gunfire, and evidence suggests that Brown was not fleeing but instead facing the officer…

The shooting of Michael Brown has solicited federal involvement to investigate “color of law abuses,” events in which law enforcement officers have stepped over the line and abused their authority.  The FBI is the lead federal agency for investigating color of law abuses, which in 2012 made up forty-two percent of the FBI’s total civil rights caseload.  The first crime listed under these investigations is excessive force. As a general rule, police officers are allowed to use whatever force is “reasonably” necessary.  However, even with this broad discretion, violations of federal civil rights law occur “when it can be shown that the force used was willfully “unreasonable” or “excessive.”

After Brown’s shooting, the FBI and Justice Department began their investigation into civil rights violations in Ferguson.  In order to prove a violation of federal law, evidence must show that there was an intended deprivation of a person’s constitutional right.  It gets trickier when the charges are against police officers, because police officers are allowed to use deadly force in certain circumstances.  Particularly, in Tennessee v. Garner the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the use of deadly force is allowed when an alleged felon is trying to flee and the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officers and others.  It has been determined that Brown was shot over six times, audio has been released showing a pause in rapid gunfire, and evidence suggests that Brown was not fleeing but instead facing the officer, therefore the Garner rule may not be applicable.

The investigation extends into complaints about the hiring practices of the Ferguson Police Department and other allegations of the use excessive force by Ferguson police officers.

Moreover, the investigation is being conducted beyond the shooting death of Brown, extending into complaints about the hiring practices of the Ferguson Police Department and other allegations of the use excessive force by Ferguson police officers.  There are four major areas that the investigation will focus on to determine if racial discrimination is a factor in the practices of the police department in Ferguson: (1) hiring, (2) ticketing, (3) small crimes, and (4) use of force.

Hiring

In Ferguson, the majority of the population consists of African Americans. Specifically, out of 21,000 people about sixty-five percent are black.  This is a stark contrast from the majority white police department.  Out of fifty-four police officers, only four are black.  This disparity could easily be a contributing factor into the racial tension that exists in Ferguson.

Ticketing

According to state statistics, black drivers in St. Louis County are sixty-six percent more likely to be stopped that whites and also more likely to be arrested. In the year 2013 alone, Ferguson filed 11,400 traffic cases, a number comparable to that of nearby Chesterfield, which is twice as big.

Small Crimes

It doesn’t stop with disparity in traffic violations.  There were over 12,300 citations filed including loitering, trespassing and petty larceny in Ferguson during 2013.  This is more than any other city in St. Louis County. The court fees from these traffic and low-level offenses could top $2.6 million for 2014, which only fuels the disconnect between the police department and the community.

Use of Force

There were complaints of excessive force being used by the Ferguson Police Department before the fatal shooting of Brown.  Specifically, four officers were accused of beating a man, and subsequently charged that man with damaging government property. The property the man was accused of damaging was the police officers ‘uniforms which had been stained with blood from the assault.  After the Brown shooting, police were criticized for “heavy-handed” tactics and equipping themselves with high-powered rifles and tear gas.

The protestors in Ferguson are still demanding answers and justice for Brown’s death.

In order to address these concerns, the Ferguson City Council recently passed bills that seek to end the excessive court fees for low-income residents and limit fines.  A citizen review board was also established in order to oversee the police. These efforts are all aimed at to defusing the tension in Ferguson. However, this is only one step in the right direction.  The protestors in Ferguson are still demanding answers and justice for Brown’s death.

The grand jury is still hearing evidence to determine whether the charges should be pursued against Officer Wilson.  In order for a criminal case to go forward, the grand jury must decide that a crime was committed and determine by a preponderance of the evidence that Wilson committed that crime.  The charges that could be brought include murder, manslaughter or negligent homicide.  Out of these charges, the prosecution would make a recommendation, then the grand jury could decide to either indict Wilson or acquit him if there is insufficient evidence.  In order to indict Wilson, nine of the twelve grand jurors would have to agree.  While citizens of the town await the decision from the grand jury, Ferguson city officials hope that the newly passed bills will help to build the much needed trust between the police department and its citizens.

Ana Hopper, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus
About Ana Hopper, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus (33 Articles)
Ana Hopper is a 2016 Campbell Law graduate and served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Campbell Law Observer for the 2015-2016 academic year. She is originally from Winston-Salem and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Sociology. The summer following her first year of law school, Ana worked as a research assistant for Professor Amy Flanary-Smith. Ana also interned at the Criminal Appellate Section of the Department of Justice her second year, and at the New Hanover District Attorney's Office as an intern the summer before her third year. She served as a Legal Research and Writing Scholar, Vice President of BLSA, and Community Chair of Lambda during her time at Campbell.
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