In the Ferguson police shooting, hashtags shouldn’t preclude evidence

08/12/2014 7:00 PM

08/12/2014 7:13 PM

Trayvon Martin’s symbol became the hoodie.

Michael Brown’s is a hands-up gesture and the hashtag #HandsUpDontShoot.

But the quick online branding of tragedies involving young black men doesn’t deepen reflection or the common sense to hesitate when facts remain cloudy. Brown’s killing manifested itself in looting and burning outside St. Louis.

The violence is also why one of the most pressing demands of protesters won’t be met soon: Releasing the name of the Ferguson officer who shot the 18-year-old Brown on Saturday afternoon.

Police are refusing. The decision is in keeping with a recent California Supreme Court case that found police must reveal the names of officers involved in fatal shootings — unless there is a credible threat to their safety. Death threats have been made. Like so many similar killings, the reaction is complicated by race, poverty and the backlash of a community long disenfranchised.

An officer’s name ordinarily doesn’t become public unless a grand jury files charges.

The Brown case is complicated by the fact that Ferguson’s police cars do not have video cameras. Kansas City police cars do. It’s a positive change made after one of the most debated police shootings of a black teenager in this city’s history.

Timothy Wilson was 13 when police shot and killed him in November 1998. He was driving a pickup truck erratically when police tried to stop him. After a chase, the truck got stuck in mud. He refused to exit the vehicle, and police said Timothy tried to ram them. He was shot five times.

Timothy’s story took five years to play out and offers several lessons. Even when someone is up to no good, it doesn’t always justify a police shooting. And even a person believed to be unarmed can incite a situation where police feel their lives are threatened, justifying, in their eyes, lethal force.

Keep both in mind before judging Brown or the officer involved with knee-jerk assumptions.

A grand jury decided not to charge officers in Timothy’s killing. An FBI inquiry found no civil rights violations. After a wrongful death civil suit, a $700,000 punitive settlement was reached with the young man’s mother. The Police Department did not admit guilt. The officer’s names ultimately became public.

Timothy had a loaded semiautomatic handgun in the truck. The civil jury wasn’t allowed to learn that he had 30 small plastic bags of crack cocaine as well.

Still, he didn’t have to die. He was his mother’s beloved child.

As was Michael Brown, who should have been entering a technical school this fall. Brown’s mother and father have been among the most calm, reasoned voices since the shooting, pleading for people to remain peaceful.

This young man’s parents are willing to wait for the investigation, for more information to be revealed. Surely the rest of us on social media can follow their lead.

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to msanchez@kcstar.com. Twitter: msanchezcolumn.

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