Why We Give Cops Guns: What America Has Forgotten in Light of the Ferguson Shooting By: Shalyn Smith

Why We Give Cops Guns

What America Has Forgotten in Light of the Ferguson Shooting

By: Shalyn Smith

Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year old black teenager, was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson Missouri on August 9, 2014.[1] Brown’s death subsequently caused upheaval in many American communities including Ferguson.[2] After all, it is understandable that people would be outraged by the death of a young man who seemed to have many more years ahead of him.[3] Beyond the protests, and civil unrest however, the true disappointing effect of this tragedy is the shooting has caused many Americans to lose their trust in the police force.[4] Even Michael Brown’s mother, who is now a face for the Ferguson community, has lost her faith in the authority figures[5] that city governments employ for the purpose of providing protection and assistance to Americans daily.[6]

The lack of trust that developed in response to the Ferguson shooting (justified or not) has essentially caused many to forget why police officers are given such deadly tools to execute their job tasks. Specifically, Michael Brown’s death is national news that motivates people to wonder if law enforcement personnel are given “special rights.” [7]

“Special Rights”—The Qualified Immunity Doctrine

The question: “do police officers have special rights?” stems from the fact that Officer Wilson has not been arrested for his actions. [8] The “inaction” of Ferguson prosecutors baffles the grieving community.[9] However, since a DOJ investigation is underway, the community must realize that a grand jury has already decided to hear evidence on this issue.[10]

Elsewhere in this blog, Stephen McKitt also suggests that “special rights” exists. He asks: “Who Guards the Guardians?” and claims that the Ferguson community has responded properly to the shooting. State and federal law simply does not support this assertion even though it is supported by a wealth of passion that is warranted in light of the situation. The federal government has long established that an officer’s use of force is essentially a necessary evil when the force is reasonable. The establishment of the qualified immunity doctrine exempts officers from civil actions in these cases.[11] Case law has defined qualified immunity stating that: “government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”[12] While the doctrine does not apply in criminal court, it is evidence that state governments are opposed to the idea of permitting lawsuits every time a police officer exerts force on a citizen.

The Ferguson community would likely ask: “why shouldn’t the government want to allow lawsuits?” This is a fair question considering that even the Missouri governor states that Michael Brown’s family deserves justice.[13] The policy behind the government providing qualified immunity for government officials is that immunizing them from the plethora of suits they would surely face; protects government resources.[14] If every person the police apprehended had the ability to sue, taxpayer money would be used primarily for litigating these issues. This reasoning is logical because every day, someone in our politically charged society is likely to disagree with the decisions that government officials make. It is difficult to find issues that everyone in society agrees on.

However, the doctrine of qualified immunity does provide for exceptions. An officer must have some form of reasonable fear to use force, and if he does, the force must not be excessive.[15] These are all determinations that would be made if Brown’s family initiated a civil suit against officer Wilson. Additionally, if the DOJ investigation finds a civil rights violation, the Ferguson Police force could face even more sanctions.[16]


Solution—Fight The Right Issues

So, in response to Mr. McKitt’s question: “Who Guards the Guardians,” the answer is that Michael Brown’s death cannot be fought as an excessive force issue until other factual determinations are made. The real issue in Ferguson is that the city is facing the threat of a crumbling community. The city has lost hope, and the correct question to ask in Ferguson is “Who Trusts the Guardians?”

Recently, Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper suggested that communities can avoid situations like the Ferguson shooting by establishing partnerships between the police force and the community.[17] He states that “once [these problems] start, it is hard to wrap your arms around [them], and so now we’re seeing that [in Ferguson] and it is spinning out of control.”[18] Chief Roper is completely correct. Other communities have seen situations similar to Ferguson lead to great disaster. Most notably, the Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles 22 years ago claimed the lives of 53 people, and Los Angeles citizens viewed LAPD officers as an “occupying army.”[19] Ferguson is not far behind. Police officers have pointed guns at protestors and used tear gas to “quell” demonstrations.[20] In Los Angeles however, the city’s decision to accept the assistance of the federal government enabled it to make steps towards positive change.[21]

Alternatively, some argue that the lack of gun control in the country has caused police officers to naturally assume each suspect is armed.[22] While this view is interesting, the gun control issue is of little concern in Ferguson because even if Officer Wilson was warranted in his use of force, the lack of trust between Ferguson police and the community remains a major issue.

A Beacon of Hope for Ferguson

However, the Rodney King Riots have taught us that cities can change. Just as Los Angeles survived Rodney King’s brutal assault and the acquittal of the officers who harmed him[23], Ferguson can rebuild from Michael Brown’s tragic death. Even if Officer Wilson never enters a courtroom, if the people in Ferguson can trust police officers in the future, the city is better off. It is terrifying to believe that the guns cities provide police officers could result in the death of an innocent young man. What is even more terrifying is that as a result of that gun use, society could stop calling on the police for help in serious matters. True civil unrest and chaos are the fears we hope to avoid when we entrust officers with deadly weapons.

[1] Rachel Clarke and Christopher Lett, What happened when Michael Brown Met Officer Darren Wilson, CNN (Aug. 26, 2014, 5:00 PM), http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2014/08/us/ferguson-brown-timeline/. See also The Editorial Board, The Death of Michael Brown Racial History Behind the Ferguson Protests, N.Y. TIMES (Aug. 12, 2014), http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/13/opinion/racial-history-behind-the-ferguson-protests.html?_r=0.

[2] See The Editorial Board supra note 1(discussing the racial history behind the protest).

[3] Michael Brown’s death occurred only days before he was planning to leave for college. Id.

[4] Erin McClam and Aaron Mermelstein, Eric Holder Opens Broad Probe Into Ferguson Police, NBC News (Sept. 4,  2014, 1:14 PM), http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/michael-brown-shooting/eric-holder-opens-broad-probe-ferguson-police-n195886 (explaining Attorney General Holder’s announcement that the federal investigation of the shooting is a reaction to the “deep mistrust” between officers and the people who live there).

[5] Michael Brown’s mother told CNN: “Just hearing the words come directly from [Holder’s] mouth, face-to-face, he made me feel like, one day, I will [trust police officers] . . . . I’m not saying today, or yesterday, but one day, they will regain my trust.” Greg Botelho, Michael Brown’s mother on authorities ‘One day, they will regain my trust’, CNN U.S. (Aug. 21, 2014, 11:14 PM), http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/21/us/michael-brown-parents/.

[6] Pendleton Police Department, Job Description: Police Officer available at http://ppd.pendleton.or.us/jobdes_policeofficer (setting out the duties of one city police department); see also USA Today infra note 7.

[7] Periodicvideos, Michael Brown Supporters want Darren Wilson Arrested, USA Today (Sept. 9, 2014), http://www.usatoday.com/videos/news/2014/09/09/15333377/ (suggesting that “law enforcement is not held to the same standard as everyone else,” and questioning if police have “different laws that apply them”).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Missouri gov calls for ‘vigorous prosecution’ of Ferguson shooting case, FoxNews.com (Aug. 20, 2014), http://www.foxnews.com/us/2014/08/20/missouri-gov-calls-for-vigorous-prosecution-ferguson-shooting-case/.

[11] Sheppard, White, & Kachergus, Michael Brown: The Protests in Ferguson and the Doctrine of Qualified Immunity in Excessive Force Cases, SheppardWhite.com (Aug. 21, 2014, 4:50 PM), http://www.sheppardwhite.com/blog/michael-brown-the-protests-in-ferguson-and-the-doctrine-of-qualified-immunity-in-excessive-force-cases/.

[12] Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982).

[13] FoxNews.com supra note 10.

[14] Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. at 807-10.

[15] Patrik Jonsson, Mike Brown death, Ferguson riots raise questions about poice immunity, Alaska Dispatch News (Aug. 12, 2014), http://www.adn.com/article/20140812/mike-brown-death-ferguson-riots-raise-questions-about-police-immunity.

[16] FoxNews.com supra note 10.

[17] Periodicvideos, Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper on Ferguson, Fox 6 WBRC (2014), http://www.myfoxal.com/Clip/10494259/birmingham-police-chief-ac-roper-on-ferguson.

[18] Id.

[19] Monica Alba, What Ferguson Cops Can Learn From LAPD Response to Rodney King Riots, NBCNews (Sept. 8, 2014, 4:53 AM), http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/michael-brown-shooting/what-ferguson-cops-can-learn-lapd-response-rodney-king-riots-n197071.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] BlueKing, Police With No Guns, Daily Kos Blog (Aug. 13, 2014, 8:48 AM), http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/08/13/1321257/-Police-With-No-Guns#.

[23] Alba supra note 19.


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