PD Editorial: Understanding the tension in Missouri
Sonoma County residents understand what the people of St. Louis and, in particular, Ferguson, Mo., are experiencing as they brace for a decision on whether an officer involved in the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown will face criminal charges.
Locals had a similar wait earlier this year on whether criminal charges would be filed against Sonoma County Deputy Erick Gelhaus in the shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez on Oct. 22, 2013.
In both cases, the officers were accused - in the court of public opinion - of using excessive force that resulted in the death of a young man. And in both cases the investigations were done in secret. But there are significant differences.
In St. Louis County, the decision will be made by a grand jury made up of local residents for the sole purpose of evaluating the evidence, learning the law and coming to a decision on whether there was probable cause to believe a criminal act occurred.
Here, the decision was made at the discretion of District Attorney Jill Ravitch, based on evidence gathered by an outside public agency - the Santa Rosa Police Department - as well as her office’s own internal investigation.
Sonoma County residents waited more than eight months for a decision in the Lopez case. Residents of Missouri have, so far, been waiting three months.
And in what may be the biggest difference, before the decision was made in Sonoma County, local authorities made a public appeal for nonviolence - and the community responded. In Missouri, local officials, despite some appeals for calm, are planning for and almost anticipating the worst.
Although a decision has not yet been announced, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has already declared a state of emergency and has activated the National Guard. Meanwhile, prosecutors say they will give law enforcement agencies a 48-hour head-start in preparing for protests before making any public announcement about the grand jury’s decision.
We can think of no better way to ensure riots will occur in Ferguson - and possibly elsewhere. Cities from Boston to Oakland to Los Angeles and Las Vegas are also preparing for potential violence.
Yes, it’s possible, if not likely, that, as with the Lopez case, the decision will be to not pursue charges against the officer involved in the shooting. That’s because the standards for bringing criminal charges against an officer for conduct that occurred in the line of duty are high, and they should be. Officer Darren Wilson, who reportedly testified before the grand jury without legal representation, has said he shot Brown in self-defense. Witnesses reported that Brown was shot while responding to the officer’s commands and was returning with his hands up.
The job of the grand jury, which has subpoena power and far more leverage than the kind of civil grand jury that routinely reviews officer-involved shootings in Sonoma County, is to hear from the witnesses and determine the truth.
The residents of Ferguson would have been better served had Missouri elected officials moved ahead with an expectation that the outcome will be justice - not violence.