Three Observations on Ferguson

August 18, 2014

The first observation is one the Center for Inquiry has already made, and in its official capacity, but it bears repeating. Although we recognize that the police (and now, apparently, the National Guard), have an obligation to maintain public order, that obligation must be fulfilled in a manner consistent with respect for our fundamental freedoms, including the right to peacefully assemble and protest.

Unfortunately, police action over the last few days leaves us at CFI unconvinced that the authorities are striking the right balance.  Now with the imposition of a curfew and state of emergency, the calling in of the National Guard, and continued interference with the press, constitutional rights are suffering further infringement. There’s no denying that a minority of individuals are taking advantage of the turmoil to engage in looting and isolated attacks on police, but we doubt whether wholesale suspension of constitutional liberties for the many who have limited themselves to peaceful protest is justified.

The next two observations are personal and have not been reviewed by CFI’s Management Committee. However, I feel compelled to make them, especially the next one, because I believe they relate to CFI’s mission—just as the protection of the right of free expression and assembly relates to our mission.

It’s a fundamental principle for humanists and skeptics to conform their beliefs, and statements setting forth their beliefs, to the evidence. It’s distressing therefore to see that some, including some prominent public figures, have already made judgments about the killing of Michael Brown, characterizing it as an “execution” or a “murder.” It is safe to say that the killing of an unarmed person by a police officer strongly suggests an unjustified homicide has occurred. No question there. But it creates a presumption only. Moreover, terms such as “execution” imply an element of intent and premeditation (premeditation under the law need last only a few seconds). Perhaps the evidence will ultimately establish that officer Darrel Wilson did act with intent to kill when he had no reason to fear for his own safety. But all the relevant evidence isn’t in yet. We have just now received news of the second, private autopsy report, and that, in the absence of other evidence yet to be compiled or revealed, is already the subject of differing interpretations. (It does show that Brown wasn’t shot in the back, as one witness had claimed.) Criminal responsibility is a scalar concept, and the killing of another, even if not justified, may be voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, depending on, among other factors, whether the killer acted knowingly, recklessly, or negligently. Even if Wilson acted without appropriate justification, this does not necessarily make him an executioner.

And, of course, the claim being advanced by officer Wilson’s defenders is that Brown attacked him, and tried to wrestle away Wilson’s gun. I have to say I am highly skeptical of this claim. (It sounds eerily reminiscent of George Zimmerman’s claim, no?) It would be difficult to understand Brown’s motivation for attacking an armed police officer while not having any weapon himself. Wilson is going to bear a heavy burden in making good this defense, but that said, as of now, it cannot be ruled out as an impossibility.

As persons who pride themselves on basing claims on evidence, I believe statements by skeptics and humanists about this tragic killing should be measured and should not indulge in characterizations that, as this stage, lack sufficient evidentiary support.

Final observation. In my mind the killing of Brown raises the question whether all police officers need to routinely carry firearms, especially when non-lethal weapons are available. (This question is raised however the killing of Brown came about, even, or especially if, Brown somehow was tempted to reach for Wilson’s gun.) This is not the first incident in which a police officer’s gun has resulted in a tragic killing. Too often they function primarily as magnets for trouble. I just returned from the United Kingdom, where the vast majority of police officers do not routinely carry firearms. Britain has a lower crime rate than the U.S., and, not surprisingly, a much lower rate of death by firearms. Having to make split-second decisions regarding the discharge of a firearm is not necessarily conducive to optimal outcomes. I don’t see why beat officers shouldn’t be limited to non-lethal weapons, with firearms restricted to thoroughly trained officers who would be called upon to provide back-up when needed. In this scenario, the armed officers would have been made aware of the situation prior to their arrival on the scene and, one would hope, would be able to make appropriate decisions regarding the amount of force to be deployed.

Of course, in making this suggestion I recognize I am sailing against the wind. Belief in God may be in decline in the U.S., but worship of the Almighty Gun remains strong and resilient.