Media mostly had no idea that Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer, had allegedly been involved in a robbery of a liquor store. Rumors had circulated but no organizations had been actively seeking information on any robbery. They were not certain the robbery had anything to do with Brown’s death. Media had, however, sought the release of information from Ferguson police on the shooting by filing requests under Missouri’s “sunshine” or freedom of information law.
When Ferguson finally appeared to engage in some transparency on August 15, the police released records, which were put out to make Brown’s alleged role in a “strong-arm robbery” the focus of media attention. It was so brazen that six or seven hours later the Ferguson police chief had to admit, Darren Wilson, the officer identified today as the officer responsible for shooting Brown, had not suspected Brown had been involved in a robbery.
In the morning, Ferguson police released sixteen pages containing details from an incident report on a robbery at a convenience store. Police indicated Brown had been a suspect in this “strong arm robbery” prior to being shot by an officer, who has now been identified as Darren Wilson. (The ACLU of Missouri had filed a lawsuit for an incident report but this was not the incident report the chapter had wanted officials to release. They wanted the report on the shooting that killed Brown.)
Later in the day, Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson held a second press conference and admitted that Wilson never had any suspicion that Brown had been involved in a robbery. The stop allegedly happened because Brown and his friend were “walking down the street blocking traffic.”
The Ferguson police department provided surveillance footage from the convenience store to news networks, which allegedly showed Brown intimidating and roughing up an employee as he and his friend, Dorian Johnson, stole cigars
All of this information was a big deal. CNN Legal Analyst Danny Cevallos said, prior to Jackson’s critical clarification, the robbery created “probable cause.” It would have given an officer reason to stop Brown as he was walking down the street.
…[So] the police then if they have probable cause to stop, and a suspect resists arrests and threatens the officer, then — and this is hard for a lot of people to follow — but legally an officer can shoot and use deadly force on a fleeing felon…
…if there was that initial [probable cause], then the stop is good. Once the stop is good, and if they then resist arrest and even threaten serious bodily arm, then an officer, yes, he can shoot a fleeing felon in the back as he’s trying to flee.
It’s shocking to a lot of people, but the courts have ruled on this…
Michael Brown’s attorneys and his family, as well as his supporters, were understandably outraged. Camille Phillips, a St. Louis public radio producer, reported that a cousin of Brown’s mother called the police report “smoke and mirrors.”
Attorney Daryl Parks said, “We believe the most important thing is what happened that particular day in the middle of that street as that officer killed Mike.”
Jackson claimed the video from the liquor store was released because he “had to. Too many people put in [fredom of information] requests for it,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But the ACLU of Missouri’s Anthony Rothert told ABC News they had given the chapter the “wrong incident report.”
That also conflicts with the reality that freedom of information requests are frequently delayed or outright ignored by police departments. There is no regulation that says if many people are requesting information the department has to release the records now.
The police chose to keep secret any use of force report on the shooting of Brown. They chose to keep secret any incident report Wilson may have written out or any incident report any other officer may have written on the incident. They chose not to release any narrative on the shooting.
One piece of information related to the shooting was in the records. An officer who claimed, “This incident (the store robbery) is related to another incident…In that incident Brown was fatally wounded… I responded to that scene and observed Brown. After viewing Brown and reviewing the video, I was able to confirm that Brown is the primary suspect in this incident.” However, the officer’s report on what he saw at the scene when he responded was not provided to media.
“I think it’s fair to say that releasing some records, but not releasing others when they’re equally public record seems to be an intentional effort to distract the public,” Rothert suggested to ABC News. “They’re hiding it for whatever reason…That leaves the public to imagine why that’s being hidden.”
Brown’s family and his attorneys said in a statement:
Michael Brown’s family is beyond outraged at the devious way the police chief has chosen to disseminate piecemeal information in a manner intended to assassinate the character of their son, following such a brutal assassination of his person in broad daylight.
There is nothing based on the facts that have been placed before us that can justify the execution style murder of their child by this police officer as he held his hands up, which is the universal sign of surrender…
What is clear is that releasing information about the robbery and no information on the shooting ensured legal analysts or pundits on news networks would talk about how the robbery would play a role in the family’s struggle to hold the officer accountable for killing Brown. It would make it easier for the officer to claim self-defense or that it was a justified use of force.
Jessica Pieklo, a legal analyst for RH Reality Check, alluded to something more insidious.
Worth repeating: if shooting officer didn't know Brown was a robbery suspect that story likely not admissible. That was for the jury pool
— Jessica Pieklo (@Hegemommy) August 15, 2014
The Ferguson police department want media to air surveillance footage of an alleged robbery on loop. They don’t want media to air this graphic video of the aftermath of the shooting on loop.
But, whether Michael Brown was guilty of stealing cigars or not, the way information was released was a clear act of deliberate misconduct.
Wilson, as of this moment, has not been charged with any crimes. The Ferguson police department is sheltering him from media and people they allege have threatened his life.
The police version of the shooting asserts that Brown “shoved” the officer, tried to grab the officer’s gun and then he was shot. But that version conflicts with a number of witnesses who have given accounts of the shooting.
For example, Johnson, who witnessed the shooting, said in an MSNBC interview that he saw Wilson allegedly roll up in a police car and demand they “get the fuck on the sidewalk.” They told the officer they were close to Johnson’s house and kept walking. Wilson slammed on his brakes and put the car in reverse. He nearly hit them.
Wilson allegedly tried to open his door, and it slammed into Brown. Wilson then allegedly grabbed Brown’s neck. He was choking Brown and then Johnson saw that Wilson had a gun. Johnson allegedly heard the officer say, “I’ll shoot,” and then he pulled the trigger.
Brown was able to take off running with Johnson while he was bleeding, and shouted, “Keep running, bro!” to Johnson. Wilson allegedly fired another shot. This is when Brown allegedly turned to face the officer and said, “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!”
Wilson did not stop shooting. According to Johnson, he fired a few more shots at Brown and then Brown fell to the ground and died.
Johnson’s account suggests that Brown was executed by a Ferguson police officer. The officer apparently never made a legitimate and lawful attempt to restrain or handcuff him because he was under arrest. Instead, the officer took it personally that the two young black teenagers had defied him and decided to use his weapon.
Another witness sent out photos of the aftermath of the shooting on Twitter and witnessed Wilson allegedly kill Brown.
With much of the world focused on Ferguson and the federal government involved in a federal investigation of their own, it is understandable why the Ferguson police department believed it needed to inject the robbery into the media. They have already been embarrassed for transforming Ferguson into a war zone. They are repeatedly being reminded that the department’s officers are almost all white and do not really represent the predominantly black community. But, of course, that does not excuse the efforts to cover up what happened.
Because the department values their officer’s life more than the life of an unarmed black teen who their officer allegedly killed in cold blood, the Ferguson police are willing to attempt to manipulate and deceive the country however they can. They probably think they can get away with it because they know how rare it is for blacks who are killed by police to win justice in American courts. Yet, the more brazen they are, the harder it will be to protect their own from prosecution.