After the Ferguson Hearing: Police Reform or More Controversy?

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The trial of Police Officer Darren Wilson, who killed unarmed 18-year-old Micheal Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is directly in the spotlight. It’s heavily controversial and there’s no outcome to a trial that won’t be contentious to some in the community.

If Wilson is found guilty, members of the public will argue that he was tried in a deeply biased national atmosphere. Others will take it as proof that the system in Ferguson is unjust and it may only cement anger and mistrust. If he’s found innocent, cries of racism, cover-up, and government interference will be heard for months. Some will take it as confirmation that trusting the law enforcement in Ferguson is impossible; the anger and pain that has torn through the area in the form of riots, shootings, and protests will likely continue.

Contingency Efforts From the Start

This is why lawyers, politicians, police, and other leaders are making an effort to avoid as much of the controversy and violent backlash as possible by being thorough and careful. Some of their efforts started soon after the investigation and protests began. President Barack Obama made it clear early on as public unrest broke out that federal oversight would be taking place; the local police would not be given the opportunity or responsibility of conducting an objective look into a potentially unjustified shooting from within their own force.

The Attorney general was sent to meet with the FBI, the Department of Justice personnel, and other leaders in Ferguson. A federal criminal investigation was begun and community building efforts were initiated with the Department of Justice’s Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services. Law enforcement officers in Ferguson were given body cameras and trained in their use so as to avoid a repeat of recent history, in theory protecting both themselves from false accusations and civilians from inappropriate use of force. 

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Civil Rights Investigation in Ferguson

Attorney General Eric Holder released news last week that a civil rights investigation would be made into Ferguson law enforcement. He made it clear in his statement that this isn’t being conducted out of a overabundance of caution — it isn’t merely a method of preventing further outcry and violence.

There is real, justified demand for the review. “I don’t think there is any question that there is a basis to begin a pattern of practice investigation,” said Holder, according to MSNBC. “The fact that we have pledges of local cooperation is an indication that there are issues felt even … at the local level indicating a need for us to work together to make the situation better.”

The investigation has been given the approval of the Mayor, city manager, and the police chief. Holder stated that a team from the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section will be looking into Ferguson, and that the team has an excellent track record.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Legal Efforts In Light of Controversy

Just as the investigation has gone to appropriate lengths to ensure objective consideration of the evidence, the local authorities and outside community builders have done the same for managing civilian and law enforcement relationships. Only time will tell whether enough progress can be made to prevent further protests, riots, and anger after the eventual ruling is made. The prosecutor in the trial itself is making an effort to assuage blame and anger after the jury gives a verdict.

While not unheard of, the proceedings of the trial will be somewhat unusual. For example, rather than giving a suggested punishment for Officer Wilson, the prosecutor is currently leaving a blank slate for the grand jury. On top of that, evidence is being given to members as the case progresses, rather than at the end of the FBI and County Police Department’s investigation. Ed Magee, the spokesperson for the county prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, told The Washington Post that, “Normally, [the Grand Jury] hear from a detective or a main witness or two. That’s it. This gives us an opportunity to present all of the evidence to jurors who represent St. Louis County. They will make the decision.”

It also allows the officials in the court to place more of the responsibility on Ferguson’s civilians and peers, as Susan W. McGraugh, a criminal defense lawyer and professor at St. Louis University School of Law, pointed out. “When the public reacts to what does or does not happen, they can go back to the fact that the grand jury played a large role in the decision. They can say, ‘We let these jurors, who are your peers, hear what witnesses had to say. This was their decision,” she told The Washington Post.

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