THE BLOG
12/06/2014 08:59 am ET Updated Feb 05, 2015

Analyzing Ferguson

St. Louis Post-Dispatch via Getty Images

It is not my intention to take sides one way or the other on the decision of the grand jury relating to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by Darren Wilson, a police officer. My purpose here is to clear up some misunderstandings and incorrect information.

The national news media have, for the most part, portrayed Ferguson as a small town located in the distant suburbs of St. Louis. Traveling by surface roads, Ferguson is about 1.5 miles from the City of St. Louis.

St. Louis County is a large county: 524 square miles, consisting of ninety municipalities and ten unincorporated census-designated areas, with a total population of 1,001,500 people. The City of St. Louis is a county in itself and, therefore, is not included in St. Louis County. The City of Ferguson is one of the larger municipalities in St. Louis County, consisting of 6.2 square miles with a population of slightly over 21,000 people.

There has been much criticism of the county prosecutor's decision to announce the results of the grand jury at night. The New York Times (11/26/14, p. A24) described it as a "reckless" decision because "darkness placed the law enforcement agencies at a serious disadvantage as they tried to control the angry crowds..." The prosecutor explained why he waited until 8:00 p.m. The school districts in Ferguson and some of the neighboring municipalities are relatively small, and large numbers of the children walk to and from school. Many stay for after-school activities, such as sports, music, and art. Many parents work, and some children stay at home by themselves until their parents get home, while others stay with neighbors or with babysitters.

No one knew exactly what to expect immediately after the grand jury's verdict was announced. Most local law enforcement agencies, however, anticipated that regardless of what the grand jury decided there would probably be widespread demonstrations, expressing either jubilation or anger. There was area wide concern that if the verdict were announced early, the children could have trouble getting home or could be unintentionally injured by riotous crowds. There was also concern, which turned out to be justified, for the likelihood of streets being blocked and metro service running well behind schedule, making it difficult for parents to get home to their children. Even if the children did get home safely, they could well be afraid for their own safety if demonstrators got near their homes or worried about their parents being able to get home safely.

As it turned out, the demonstrations and looting were not restricted to the Ferguson area. There were violent demonstrations in several parts of the Greater St. Louis Area, far removed from Ferguson. To this writer, the prosecutor did not make a "reckless" decision in waiting until after children were safely home with their parents before announcing the grand jury decision.

Much criticism has been leveled at the various law enforcement agencies for letting the demonstrations get out of hand and then using too much force in trying to keep the peace. But there was much behind-the-scenes planning that went on ahead of time, and hopes were high that the demonstrations would be peaceful.

Local leaders of groups planning peaceful demonstrations worked with law enforcement agencies for several weeks, agreeing on "ground rules" for the demonstrations, including where the people would go and what they would do. Law enforcement personnel were being careful not to violate the rights of people to demonstrate in orderly fashion, so they worked in advance with leaders especially in the African American community of St. Louis in making plans.

The local demonstration leaders assured the police that they would see to it that the demonstrations would be orderly. As it turned out, however, to the surprise of the police and the local organizers, the looters, trouble makers, and professional demonstrators from around the country just began appearing and mixing in with the orderly local demonstrators, and the demonstrations soon turned ugly. No one appeared to be in charge, and the demonstrations soon became angry mobs of looters determined to carry out a mission of destruction.

The county attorney was not trusted by the black community because his father had been a police officer who was killed by an African American, and many people wanted him to step aside. But he is known as a very thorough and fair prosecutor, and he and the governor agreed that his stepping down would set a bad precedent for parties in future cases to argue that prosecutors they disliked should be replaced. The county attorney (prosecutor), therefore, took a different approach with the grand jury.

Quoting from the same editorial mention above in The New York Times, "Instead of conducting an investigation and then presenting the case and a recommendation of charges to the grand jury," the prosecutor "made no recommendation on whether to indict the officer," leaving it to the grand jury to determine whether or not there was probable cause to indict the officer. The New York Times further suggested that this "unorthodox" approach "undermined public confidence." The Times said this approach caused the grand jury process to last "an astonishing three months."

Many locals, however, suggest that the prosecutor was bending over backwards to be thorough and to avoid any perception of unfairness or rushing to judgment and that had he done otherwise the violence would have been even greater. Incidentally, the county prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch, a democrat, historically has had bipartisan support as a popular prosecutor and has won re-election six times.

Periodically major news agencies have reported leaks from the grand jury, the police, and from the prosecutor's office. As it turned out, there were no leaks from the grand jury and much of what was reported as having happened turned out to be the results of over-jealous reporters turning hearsay into fact.

As I re-read what I have written, I realized that some readers might conclude that I am supporting the police, the police officer, and the prosecutor. That absolutely is not my intent. My intent is to provide a counter-balance to those in the national media who have added tragedy to an already tragic situation by not digging deeply into the facts prior to reporting or reporting from the perspective of their personal biases.

The killing of Michael Brown is an absolute tragedy. I have every reason to believe that many lawsuits and investigations lie in waiting, and new facts may emerge. It is unimportant whether or not we agree with the decision of the grand jury or the juries of future trials and the actions of special investigations. The United States is a nation of laws, and the grand jury has spoken for now. We need to move forward in a peaceful, thoughtful and lawful manner.

Regardless of personal feelings about what has happened, all of us need to do what we can to bring peace and understanding to people in Ferguson, the Greater St. Louis Area, and throughout the country. Interrupting public meetings with hate speech, destroying property worth millions of dollars, ruining mom and pop businesses, causing the loss of jobs for scores of people (many of them minorities), disrupting business in malls, and causing delays in local and freeway traffic just doesn't make sense.

Let's take a deep breath and think seriously before we speak or act.