When cops kill, silence can be deadly
If the fatal shooting in Missouri last weekend of 18-year-old Michael Brown was simply about a police officer’s use of deadly force, it would be like most of the estimated 400 or so cases in the country every year, with little notice outside of the community and very little public outcry.
And if it was like the overwhelming majority of those cases, no charges would be brought with investigators – usually fellow police officers – and prosecutors declaring it a justifiable homicide with the only witnesses being the cops and the dead victim. There would be a dispute about whether the unarmed teen obeyed the officer’s order to move to the sidewalk and whether he attacked the officer, resulting in the officer drawing and firing his weapon in self-defense. But, again, interest would dissipate and the shooting would fade from public view.
But the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, a predominantly black suburb of St. Louis, is as much a matter of silence by police as it is over the disputed facts of the case. Ferguson police and county prosecutors have so far refused to release any information in the case regarding the officer in the shooting, who has been placed on leave, including his name and how many times Brown was shot. The FBI has stepped in to investigate but that is a rare occurrence in such shootings.
It’s a situation that CommonWealth examined in our winter issue. Since 2002, local and State Police in Massachusetts have shot and killed at least 73 civilians, ranging from a 15-year-old New Bedford boy to a retired MBTA mechanic in Framingham. No criminal charges were brought in any of the deadly incidents. In at least a dozen of the cases examined by CommonWealth, there were enough questions and conflicts raised that the case could have been brought to a grand jury or at least a judicial inquest. The common thread in all of them is the cases were investigated by either State Police or, in the case of shootings in Boston, Springfield, and Worcester, fellow officers.
While police shootings are reported on individually, rarely does the media take a deeper look. The Las Vegas Journal Review published an exhaustive series and database a few years back entitled “Always Justified,” in which they examined hundreds of officer-involved shootings in their county. Locally, the Globe ran a series similar to CommonWealth’s examining police shootings, fatal and non-fatal, and the website Blackstonian.com has been tracking deadly police shootings of minorities in the state for several years.
Part of the problem is the insular manner in which police shootings are investigated and the lack of transparency and oversight in those investigations. Despite the obvious conflicts of interest — with police investigating themselves or district attorneys, who work with local and state police, investigating the incidents — rarely is a shooting investigation handed off to an unbiased or uninvolved third-party. DAs are reluctant to recuse themselves and, when they do, it merely goes to another district attorney. While the attorney general can also look into the shootings, it has not been done in recent memory in Massachusetts. And only two judicial inquests, one in Fitchburg and one in Boston, have been undertaken in fatal officer-involved shootings since 2002.
As the Rev. Talbert Swan of Springfield told CommonWealth earlier this year, there needs to be independent investigation to satisfy both sides. “There’s no way that any type of objective decision can result out of an investigation by folks investigating themselves,” he says. “The public deserves no less than to have full confidence in the results of an investigation. If my son were involved in the execution of a crime, and you allowed me and his mother and his siblings to do the investigation, you can imagine what the recommendations will be.”
— JACK SULLIVAN
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