Diane Dimond: Frequent payouts compound ‘Ferguson Effect’
The parents of Michael Brown, who was killed by police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, have just gotten a financial windfall. The city’s insurance company has agreed to pay them $1.5 million to settle their wrongful death lawsuit against the town, the former police chief and Wilson.
In other words, Ferguson folded, probably on the advice of their insurance company’s lawyers.
While I cannot imagine the grief of those parents, losing their son the way they did, I can’t shake the feeling that they are being rewarded for their 18-year-old’s bad behavior. The cold hard truth of that day is that Brown had just stolen a box of cigarillos from a local market and was defiantly walking down the middle of the street, ignoring the officer’s instructions to get on the sidewalk. Trustworthy eyewitnesses reported it was their son who was the aggressor that day, that he violently pushed Wilson back into his patrol car as he tried to get out, and then wrestled over his gun.
Forensic evidence confirmed the teenager’s blood was found on Wilson’s gun and on the inside of the car, clear corroboration of the eyewitness accounts that Brown started the fight and the officer’s claim that Brown was going for the weapon.
Initial witnesses screamed into TV cameras that Brown had his hands in the air and was begging, “Don’t shoot!” before he was shot in the back. Those reports were proven to be false. Of the six bullets fired by the officer, the first took off a hunk of Brown’s right thumb, and four others hit the teen in the right side of the neck and chest, and right arm. The fatal bullet struck him in the top of his head, indicating the 6-foot-5-inch 289-pound young man was either falling forward or charging at Wilson.
A grand jury heard 60 witnesses and declined to indict Officer Wilson. A separate Justice Department investigation during Barack Obama’s presidency cleared the officer of any civil rights abuses.
The DOJ also investigated the practices of the political and justice system in Ferguson and concluded that city officials had engaged in a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against African-Americans. The report said it stemmed from the undue pressure put on the police department by Ferguson’s finance director to increase revenue by issuing more tickets and fines for minor infractions.
The report says: “Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on ‘productivity,’ meaning the number of citations issued. Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”
It was a terrible thing that happened that steamy August day in Ferguson. A young man who was anticipating going to college was gunned down in the street. Because an angry crowd gathered and officers heard gunshots, his body laid on the hot pavement for four hours. Ultimately, Officer Wilson resigned, and at last report, he is unable to find another law enforcement job and still receives death threats. I suppose it is human nature to think someone somewhere should pay for what happened.
But this practice of insurance companies automatically paying out to avoid the expense of proving the truth in court should end. By believing that it is cheaper to pay a bit upfront, these companies give strength to the idea that big money must be the reward for any and all unexpected occurrences. This practice has gone on too long.
More than a decade ago, I was verbally and physically threatened by a man while covering a long criminal trial. Day after day, his ugly in-your-face taunts continued until court security finally urged me to file a restraining order so they could have legal standing to arrest him should he cross the line. I did. My tormentor teamed up with an eager imaginative attorney and threatened a lawsuit because I had chilled his constitutional right to free speech. I’m pretty sure the Founding Fathers did not believe that constant cursing and rants constitute free speech, but no matter. Rather than go through a costly trial to argue the merits of the case, my employer’s insurance company decided to pay the man and his attorney to go away.
After looking into the law enforcement system in Ferguson, the Justice Department reported, “We have found substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson.” Surely, that conclusion underscored the need for a major overhaul. But in the specific case of Officer Wilson and Michael Brown? The DOJ found no fault on the part of the officer, no reason to charge him for, in effect, defending himself during a violent citizen-instigated altercation.
So, where is the logic in paying out $1.5 million to Michael Brown’s parents? I’m sorry, I just don’t get it.