An incendiary verdict on the killing of Michael Brown

American justice system skewed against people of colour


The anger on display in Ferguson, Missouri, this week is about much more than the decision not to bring any charges against a white policeman who shot dead an unarmed black teenager. It is a cry of rage against an American justice system that has shown itself to be skewed at every level against people of colour, and especially against young black men. The police officer, Darren Wilson, says his conscience is clear after killing 18 year-old Michael Brown last August and a grand jury found there was no probable cause that Wilson committed any crime.

Statistically, it is unusual for grand juries not to indict – in 2010, grand juries chose not to indict in just 11 out of 162,000 federal cases. Police officers, however, are seldom indicted for their role in shootings, even when those they shoot are unarmed. A recent analysis by the US news organisation ProPublica found that African-Americans are 21 times more likely than white Americans to be killed in police shootings. Almost 3 per cent of young black men in America are in jail, six times the rate of their white counterparts, they are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be convicted, and likely to face tougher sentences.

President Barack Obama was right to call on all Americans to respect the grand jury’s decision, even if they disagree with it or think it is unfair. But calls for calm, although necessary, are an inadequate response to a growing crisis of confidence about policing among the black community. Mr Brown’s parents, who have urged demonstrators to protest peacefully, have called for all police officers to wear cameras on their uniforms. If Mr Wilson had been wearing a camera, the grand jury in Ferguson would not have had to rely on often conflicting or contradictory eyewitness reports. Experience in some US states and in other countries, including Britain, suggests that cameras can improve the behaviour both of police officers and those with whom they are interacting.

Technology alone, however, will not eliminate racial bias within the American judicial system. That will require political leadership and courage, qualities sadly lacking in Washington.