The Startling Incompetence of Governor Jay Nixon and the Authorities in Ferguson

November 25th 2014

Danielle Belton

The cynic in me is struggling in wake of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. 

I’m not struggling with the decision – anyone watching the case should have had a strong suspicion there would be no indictment. If the prosecutor’s unusual behavior in dumping all the information on the grand jury instead of guiding them through the prosecution’s version of the event didn’t convince you, the many, many leaks out of the grand jury did. 

I’m not struggling with the looting and the unrest that unraveled late in the evening after the announcement. While I had hoped for the best, the anger and frustration of the community is real. Anything but an indictment would be taken as a failure in the system, a continuation of the belief that prosecutors protect police, even when police are the perps. 

What I’m struggling with is the response of the State of Missouri in preparation for potential unrest. What I’m struggling with is why wait until 8 p.m.?

On a night that revealed more questions than answers, why did St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough wait until 8 p.m. in the evening, after darkness had fallen over the city and rumor had already spread that there would be no indictment, to give a 20 minute statement announcing the grand jury’s decision – which had been made early in the afternoon?

During the August unrest after Officer Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Brown the worst incidents happened at night. McCullough could have announced the grand jury decision during the day light hours, giving time for people to take in the news and calm down, instead it seemed the state of Missouri and its officials had learned nothing since August – other than to have police wear uniforms instead of paramilitary style gear while launching smoke canisters into crowds.

The violence that unfolded after the no indictment was handed down was preventable, but actions seemed inconsistent in trying to prevent it. A state of emergency was declared a week prior to the grand jury finishing convening. There were reported plans to release the decision Sunday morning, but the grand jury wasn’t finished meeting. Then despite calling up the National Guard, their presence seemed thin the night of the announcement. About a dozen buildings burned along with several cars, as peaceful protestors were overwhelmed by those most set to act on their despair. 

Gov. Jay Nixon, Prosecutor McCullough, the police, the National Guard – did anyone have a plan? In all the time and training that had taken place since the August protests, had anything really been gained? This couldn’t have been the play, to manage through incompetence so that unrest could be guaranteed, so that police action could seem justified when protests turned violent? It was more than likely incompetence for incompetence’s sake. Monday night McCullough kept saying how he didn’t want what had happened to ever happen again, although he didn't say what the “what” was. Did he not want another officer involved in the shooting of an unarmed black man? Did he not want another riot? Did he not want more months of protests? Did he not want to be forced to do something about a police officer shooting someone? Did he not want the critical eye of the press and the world on St. Louis? Did he not want to be bothered? He wasn’t specific.

But I know what I don’t want.

I don’t want the governor or the government of Missouri to think that any of this is OK. I don’t want them to think now that the fires are out and Wilson won’t be indicted, but will likely resign, that all this is over. Because it’s not. There are more questions about how the system behaved. There are more things McCullough and Jay Nixon and others will need to do to make things right if they want this to never happen again – and it starts with police training, it starts with citizen review boards with real power, it starts with taking the power out of the hands of those closest to the police and making police accountable to the people they serve. 

Our system is broken, but we can fix it. But the cynic in me has a feeling McCullough and others think a system that protects officers like Wilson works just fine. And if that’s the case the cynic thinks this is a history we are all doomed to repeat.