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The Ferguson Fallout

December 1, 2014

The key to the criminal justice system, says a top New York City prosecutor, is trust. There isn’t much of that in the fallout over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

The criminal justice system is perhaps the nation’s most racially polarized institution. Many African Americans see it one way, whites another.

Today, we see the racial divide over Brown’s shooting that we saw in the O.J. Simpson case 20 years ago. Many blacks exulted when the NFL star was acquitted of killing his white wife, Nicole Brown. Many whites were appalled.

Many blacks view the death of the unarmed Brown — shot by a white officer from a virtually all-white police department in a city that is largely African American — as emblematic of a criminal justice system that continues to devalue black lives.

Many whites view Brown as a thug, who shortly before a white officer confronted him had stolen a box of cigars from a convenience store, shoved the clerk who tried to stop him, then attacked the officer.

The polarization extends to Ferguson prosecutor Robert McCulloch and his presentation to the grand jury. Because his father, a St. Louis cop, was killed in the line of duty by a black gunman, some claim McCulloch’s actions regarding the grand jury favored the white officer over Brown. An NAACP lawyer said on national television that McCulloch’s failure to aggressively cross-examine the officer and to bring an indictment against him showed McCulloch had failed as a prosecutor.

The New York City prosecutor, who is white, said: “The duty of a prosecutor is first to serve justice.” Another top city prosecutor, also white, said McCulloch “did just what I would have done.”

>Much of the Ferguson dilemma was borne of a perfect storm of misguided police actions. “It’s a small department,” said the second city prosecutor. “They’ve never been through this before. They had no idea what to do.”

Three major problems:

bullet First, police left Brown’s body uncovered in the street for hours after he was shot.

bullet Second, authorities refused for weeks to release the name of the officer who shot Brown: Darren Wilson.

bullet Third, and perhaps more important, there was no official police narrative. This left a vacuum in which many in the national media accepted the stories of eyewitnesses who claimed Brown’s hands were raised in surrender when Wilson shot him. “Hands up, don’t shoot,” has become a national mantra.

Only months later, did it emerge that the eyewitness accounts were false. Wilson’s grand jury testimony, supported in part by a blood trail of forensic evidence, indicated Brown had punched Wilson while he sat inside his squad car and then reached for Wilson’s gun.

Wilson told the grand jury that Brown also taunted him outside his car, saying “You’re too big a ... to shoot me,” then charged at him before Wilson fired.

This is not to suggest that we know everything that transpired between them. There is a gap of time — from when Wilson said he stepped out of his car until he said Brown charged at him and Wilson fired. No less than eyewitnesses, cops, too, can be liars.

By the time the grand jury made its decision, it was too late for the truth. The polarization has become such that no one on either side of the racial divide will believe anything other than what he or she is inclined to believe.

So how will Ferguson’s case play out in NYC and the recent deaths of two black men by police? So far, it doesn’t look good.

In the most recent incident, it appears a rookie NYPD officer accidentally shot an unarmed black man in the darkened stairwell of a Brooklyn housing complex last month. The other is the chokehold death in July of Eric Garner on Staten Island.In both cases, many black New Yorkers, encouraged by local politicians, have charged racism, although in the housing shooting, a more likely scenario is that the rookie Asian-American officer who fired the fatal shot was scared out of his mind.

Since Ferguson, protesters have staged marches, albeit small ones, across the city. Encouraged by the leniency of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD, they have marched on to the FDR Drive, disrupting traffic, through Times Square, across the Manhattan Bridge, and at the Lincoln Tunnel.

A command last week heard over a police frequency made the police response clear: “Let them have the bridge,” said a commander.

“What is the City Council doing to control the demonstrators?” said a former high-ranking police official. “Fifty demonstrators who can shut down the Manhattan Bridge are endangering public safety. The only time they stopped [the demonstrators] was at the Thanksgiving Parade, which was a national event. Allowing this to go on is not going to cause the demonstrators to be more peaceful. They are looking for a confrontation. What kind of mayor cannot see this?”

With an impending grand jury decision due in the Garner case, the Rev. Al Sharpton has announced a “countdown” until the grand jury decision.

“We’re setting the clock today,” he said Saturday. “There’s going to be a countdown every day this week.”

Says the former police official: “Countdown to what? It’s inciting. It’s intimidating. We are on the road to a tragedy.”

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