In September 2014, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) opened two inquiries into issues related to the shooting of Michael Brown, one focused on the shooting itself and the other on police–community relations in the city of Ferguson. In this lesson, students review the DOJ’s findings, the complexity of the DOJ’s task, and the implications of the findings for journalists and consumers of news. Finally, students reflect on the persistent differences in understanding about the events in Ferguson and what individuals, community leaders, and journalists can do to try to bridge those gaps.
In September 2014, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it was opening two inquiries into issues related to the shooting of Michael Brown: the first an independent criminal investigation into the circumstances of the shooting, and the other an investigation of whether the Ferguson Police Department engaged in systematic violations of the US Constitution or federal law.
At the same time, between August and November 2014, a grand jury in Ferguson reviewed evidence that included hours of testimony and documents about the altercation between officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. On November 24, 2014, St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch announced the grand jury’s decision that the evidence in the case did not support an indictment of Officer Wilson, setting off a second round of protests in Ferguson. As in the days and weeks following the shooting itself, there was a mix of large, nonviolent demonstrations and frequently tense, sometimes-violent confrontations with police during the day, plus sporadic violent protests and looting, mostly at night.
The Department of Justice released its two reports on March 4, 2015. In the first, the DOJ decided against charging Officer Wilson with a civil rights violation. In the second, investigators strongly criticized the Ferguson Police Department, concluding that “Ferguson police officers routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force against them.”
The findings contained evidence that both confirmed and contradicted the assumptions of people from across the spectrum of beliefs about what actually happened on August 9, 2014. For example, the protesters in Ferguson used the chant “Hands up, don’t shoot” based on their belief that Michael Brown was in the process of peacefully surrendering to Wilson when he was shot. After reviewing the forensic evidence, Department of Justice investigators challenged that interpretation, but as in many of their findings, they were unable to be conclusive.
According to Wesley Lowery’s report in the Washington Post on March 4, 2015, “here is what investigators believe most likely happened on Aug. 9.
- There is not evidence to suggest Darren Wilson’s use of force was unreasonable
- Michael Brown likely did reach into Wilson’s vehicle and grab the officer
- Michael Brown did double back toward Darren Wilson
- Michael Brown’s hands were probably not up, but it’s impossible to say for sure”