All of St. Louis owes a debt of gratitude to the 12 St. Louis County citizens who served on the grand jury that has decided that Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson will not stand trial for the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown.
The debt is owed not for the decision. The debt would have been owed had the grand jurors come back with an indictment.
The debt is owed for hanging in there while all about them the experts and would-be experts speculated about what happened on Canfield Drive shortly after noon on that warm Saturday afternoon.
Many people decided immediately that they knew what happened. Others decided as rumors surfaced and leaks bubbled up. Others chose sides strictly based on the color of their skin.
The grand jurors — 12 citizens chosen from the circuit court petit jury pool in May — must have heard this speculation. They would have taken an oath of secrecy when they were sworn in. No doubt they were admonished time and again, in Kipling’s words, “to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you....”
The jurors — seven men, five women; nine whites, three blacks — did a job they couldn’t have dreamed they’d be doing in May, a job that none of them signed up for. They listened to two assistant prosecutors present physical evidence gathered by police investigators. They listened to Officer Wilson’s account of what happened. They listened to some 60 witnesses. They were instructed in what Missouri law says about what’s needed to bring various categories of homicide charges against a cop.
It boils down to whether, “He or she reasonably believes that such deadly force is necessary to protect himself, when he reasonably believes that such use of deadly force is immediately necessary to effect the arrest,” and when the subject, “May otherwise endanger life or inflict serious physical injury unless arrested without delay.”
In Graham v. Connor in 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that reasonableness “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.”
Did Darren Wilson do what a reasonable cop would do? The grand jury thinks he did.
People are going to disagree. People are going to march and protest. The protests happening daily since Aug. 9 in the St. Louis region are about much more than the adjudication of one case. But as it relates to the guilt or innocence of Officer Wilson, reading the witnesses’ testimony and reviewing the evidence that the grand jury heard, released last night, should be mandatory. If you still disagree with the grand jury’s decision, or simply don’t trust the state of the judicial system in the St. Louis region, then by all means, let your voice be heard. It won’t change the decision, but it might do some long-term good.
More of that long-term good will be accomplished if protests are peaceful. Unfortunately, some of the early images around St. Louis Monday night showed fires and violence. With peaceful protest, people will be drawn to the cause. Further tragedies can be avoided.
Realize the progress that’s already been made. Gov. Jay Nixon has appointed 16 members of the Ferguson Commission, which will be charged with investigating the underlying causes of Michael Brown’s death. The commission has strong voices, some of whom have been leaders in the protests since Aug. 9. That’s measurable progress.
If that commission does its job right, this could be huge. It could begin to redress a century’s worth of discrimination. It could reorganize St. Louis in ways that will help everyone, black and white alike. The pressure will be on the Ferguson Commission and the governor to deliver.
Emerson Co. and Centene, two Fortune 500 companies, already have committed to expanding in Ferguson. Scholarship and job training programs have been promised. A community that’s been short on opportunity will get more of it. That’s big.
The disgraceful municipal court system in St. Louis County is already undergoing change. The state Supreme Court could order a revolution. If a municipality can’t pay its bills without traffic tickets and court fines, that municipality should go away. If its police force is underpaid and undertrained and out of touch with its community, as Ferguson’s was and is, and if it does not reflect the community’s diversity, the police force needs to go away.
These are real problems that will be addressed in ways that were unthinkable until Aug. 9. #Ferguson opened a lot of eyes.
On the editorial page, we often use the phrase “the St. Louis community,” but more in hope than in expectation. Except for sports teams and the weather, people in St. Louis don’t share much in the way of common interests, attitudes, beliefs or goals. We suspect this is true of most places.
There are instead a multiplicity of communities and sub-communities, all the way down to micro-communities of people and their closest friends. Today each of the micro-communities can exist in a silo where never is heard a discouraging word. The news is framed the way we want. We believing what we want to believe, and woe betide anyone who thinks differently.
Social scientists call this “confirmation bias.” Human beings tend to look for reasons to believe what they already believe.
If you believe that Darren Wilson feared for his life, having wrestled with a huge and aggressive 18-year-old for a weapon, nothing in the evidence presented to the grand jury is likely to convince you otherwise. Read it anyway. Please.
If you believe, on the other hand that a “gentle giant” was accosted by a cop with a chip on his shoulder who shot him dead as he was trying to surrender, you aren’t buying any other story. Maybe your beliefs are underpinned by your own experience of being singled out for attention by cops because of the color of your skin. Read the evidence anyway. Please.
Confirmation bias steers us toward conclusions we are predisposed to reach, and away from anything that doesn’t meet our ingrained ideas. Indeed, studies have shown that on partisan political issues, the more people are presented with facts that disprove their beliefs, the more strongly they cling to them.
Political scientist James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who conducted an influential 2000 study of this phenomenon, calls it the “I know I’m right syndrome.”
Confirmation bias is a big problem for democracy. We owe it to each other and to society to keep an open mind, to seek out facts instead of relying on our beliefs. But this doesn’t play so well on Twitter and Facebook. They don’t call them “followers” for nothing.
Too many people know they’re right. They don’t want to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. They’re happy with their own shoes, thank you very much.
Confirmation bias is also a big problem in picking jurors. That’s why defense attorneys and prosecutors are so careful during the trial jury selection process. They look for people who might be leaning their way. At the very least, they look for people with an open mind.
Grand jurors don’t get to hear defense lawyers. They hear what prosecutors want them to hear. The system can be abused, but given the extraordinary attention devoted to Mr. Wilson’s actions, it’s likely that every stone was turned over in this case.
If there are holes in the evidence, it will be up to Mr. Nixon, or the U.S. Department of Justice, to seek a remedy.
The various communities that make up St. Louis don’t have to like the grand jury decision. But they must abide by it. Difficult as it will be, we should all try to do what the grand jurors had to do: Open our minds.
The sort of real and permanent change that St. Louis needs is going to require quiet, sustained cooperation, not just loud protests. If we can open our minds, if we can find empathy with our fellow man, we can get to work healing the wounds that led to the tragedy on Canfield Drive.