Ferguson: A Question of Excessive Force?

a picture of police wearing riot gear to arrest an unarmed black man raises questions about police use of excessive force.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
Written by Guy Nave

While many may interpret my question about excessive force as a criticism of the police, it is nothing more than a criticism of the use of excessive force.

In a blog I wrote less than two weeks ago, “Justice … not ‘Just Us’,” I asserted, “Our lives are constituted by relationships. The question is, ‘what is the nature of these relationships?’” I also asserted, “Exploitative relationships result in situations of ‘just us’ rather than justice.”

As I sat listening to Robert P. McCulloch, the StLouis County prosecutor, return the grand jury’s decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of “Mr. Brown,” I kept waiting to hear comments regarding how or why Wilson was justified in firing several shots at an unarmed teenager. I kept waiting to hear some critique of the use of excessive force.

After spending several minutes complaining about the news coverage and the use of social media, the county prosecutor began detailing the inconsistency of eyewitness testimony and the reliability of “physical and scientific evidence.” It was obvious at the outset that the prosecutor was setting the stage for the grand jury’s verdict by discrediting any and all witness accounts that suggested Michael Brown was surrendering or had his hands up before Wilson shot him several times.

While I was not surprised by the grand jury’s verdict, what I found disappointing in this case and continue to find disappointing in cases like this one, is the failure to discuss the use of excessive force by police.

While giving his prepared remarks, McCulloch made no comments regarding Wilson’s use of deadly force against an unarmed 18-year-old man.

During the question-and-answer session, the prosecutor made several references to “justified shootings.” Considering the fact that Michael Brown was unarmed, I fail to understand how firing 10 shots at Michael Brown as he approached officer Wilson was warranted. How many shots were needed to qualify for excessive force?

What does it say about police training if a trained police officer feels his life is at risk because an unarmed teenager is approaching him? What does it say about police training if a “trained” police officer believes he is exercising “self-defense” by firing 10 times at an approaching unarmed teenager? Do we really believe there is nothing wrong with a police officer killing an unarmed teenager by firing 10 shots at him?

When exactly does a police officer’s action to subdue a suspect cross the line of what society is willing to accept? Is the notion “by any means necessary” inappropriate for some people but always appropriate for police officers? What exactly qualifies as excessive force for police officers, and when does that excessive force become inappropriate?

In the case of Ferguson, Mo., the use of excessive force by police officers seems to far outpace the national average. According to the Washington Post, six other Ferguson officers — five current and one former — have been named in civil rights lawsuits alleging the use of excessive force.

This means 13 percent of the police department in Ferguson has faced such investigations, compared to a national average of less than 1 percent of all police officers as calculated by the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project. Clearly, there is a history of questionable racial relationships in Ferguson.

While I do not claim to have answers to the questions I ask here, as a biblical scholar, a professor of religion, and an ordained minister, I feel I have a moral and professional obligation to raise such questions and to initiate critical reflection regarding what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior (especially by those in power).

In response to the grand jury’s verdict, prosecutor McCulloch asserted, “Decisions on matters as serious as charging an individual of a crime simply cannot be decided on anything less than complete critical examination of all available evidence. Anything less is not justice.”

McCulloch’s comment clearly reflects that he is far more concerned with what he considers to be “justice” for Wilson than he is with justice for Michael Brown and the Brown family.

While I in no way support the rioting in Ferguson, Martin Luther King, Jr. once noted, “A riot is the language of the unheard,” and there are many in Ferguson who not only “feel” unheard but who clearly “have been” unheard.

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About the author

Guy Nave

Guy Nave is a professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research focuses on the topics of Christianity, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics, and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change."

He is the author of several articles and book chapters, and he served as a New Testament Greek translator for the 2011 Common English Bible. His commentary on 2 Corinthians is published in the African American New Testament Commentary, and his book, The Role and Function of Repentance in Luke-Acts has been identified as “the standard scholarly work on repentance in the New Testament.”

Guy Nave received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Yale University. In addition to his blog posts here, he is a frequent contributor to Sojourners Magazine's online "Commentary" blog series.

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