Schmidt Law Services Blog

Lisa Schmidt

Could Michael Brown's Story Change Police in America?

What could change after the Michael Brown protests?

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For the residents of Ferguson, Missouri, this has been a week of protests, riots, and violence. Outrage over the death of 18 year old Michael Brown has caused nightly clashes with police. The President and the Department of Justice have even gotten involved. But when the tear gas settles, will anything actually change?

What Happened in Ferguson, Missouri?

On Saturday, August 9, 2014, an unarmed 18 year old black man named Michael Brown was shot by police. Why that happened is up for debate. Police say there was a struggle while eye witnesses say he had his hands raised in surrender.

When Brown’s family demanded answers the police refused. The incident triggered an underlying racial tension – Ferguson is 70% black, but its police force is almost entirely white. All this caused a protest that turned violent over the next several days. The police militarized, bringing in armored vehicles and military-grade armor and weapons, and protestors began rioting, vandalizing, and looting.

By Thursday, the state police stepped in, replacing local police with members of the Missouri Highway Patrol. Finally, on Friday, the police released the name of the shooter. The protests continue, calling for justice and a federal investigation.

Is Michael Brown’s Case Unusual?

While Brown’s death is an extreme case, sadly, this kind of police conduct is far from rare. The fact that the police reports differ so greatly from eyewitness statements is not surprising either. Police reports are written after the fact and often include justifications for whatever happened in the course of the encounter.

For example, if a person turns out to be drunk, some officers will add to the report that they smelled a strong odor of intoxicants and observed slurred speech and watery eyes. But later, when questioned, the officers will have no independent memory of the event.

When police misconduct cases do occur, civil rights attorneys come up against the “Blue Shield.” Police officers and even government officials often protect one another. It can be hard to figure out what actually happened.

Will Anything Change?

Brown’s death is just the latest in a series of race-implicated police brutality including Rodney King in California in 1991 to the Detroit race riots in the 1940s and ’60s. But the way the nation has reacted, with solidarity protests and calls to de-militarize police happening all across the country, could signal a time for change in police oversight and management.

Other police misconduct cases suggest some modern solutions to the “Blue Shield”:

  • Assigning independent special prosecutors rather than performing internal reviews.
  • Providing transparency to the people affected.
  • Equipping officers with personal cameras to record interactions.
  • Increasing the number of racial minority officers, particularly in high-diversity neighborhoods.

The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, have shone a spotlight on the murky waters of police policies. If policy makers want to see change come out of this tragedy, they need to focus on breaking the Blue Shield and making law enforcement answerable to the people they are sworn to serve and protect.

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