A Path Forward in Prosecuting Ferguson Cop

Follow Bush and support federal charges

Earl Ofari Hutchinson | 12/3/2014, 3:39 p.m.
On March 22, 1991, a visibly shaken and angered President George H.W. Bush said he was sickened and "outraged" by ...
Earl Ofari Hutchison

On March 22, 1991, a visibly shaken and angered President George H.W. Bush said he was sickened and "outraged" by what he saw on television. That was the beating of black motorist Rodney King by a swarm of LAPD cops. A year later following the acquittal of four of the police officers by a Simi Valley jury with no blacks on it, Bush ordered then Attorney General William Barr to begin the process of slapping federal civil rights charges on the officers.

He issued a terse statement saying “the verdict has left us all with a deep sense of personal frustration and anguish." He backed this up with a televised address a few days later in which he strongly signaled that civil rights charges would be brought against the officers.

Bush had the authority to order a prosecution, via a string federal criminal civil rights laws specifically authorize the prosecution of police officers, who blatantly violate the law by using deadly or excessive force against civilians, when there is a “compelling public interest” to do so.

In the case of King, the compelling public interest was that the state trial was flawed in the racially skewed jury composition, and that there was a need to confront the corrosive violation of civil rights by a law enforcement agency. More specifically, the statute on “compelling public interest” makes plain that the alleged violation must involve "egregious conduct, including that which . . . causes loss of life," and where "the result in the prior prosecution was manifestly inadequate in light of the federal interest involved."

With the Ferguson grand jury deciding not to bring charges against Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the slaying of Michael Brown, President Obama now finds himself faced with the same decision Bush Sr. had to make 22 years ago.

The call has repeatedly gone out for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to bring civil rights charges against Wilson. He would not have moved as quickly as he did to assign a phalanx of FBI agents to the case, secure an independent autopsy of Brown’s death, and personally travel to the city to review procedures with civil rights attorneys and investigators without the personal approval of Obama. Obama, as Bush did on King, has spoken out on various aspects of the Brown case and has almost certainly kept a close watch on developments.

But can and will he do what Bush Sr. did and order Holder to go forward with charges?

There’s the compelling federal interest. Brown was not detained or charged with a crime when the fatal encounter with Wilson occurred. Multiple eyewitnesses say he was shot with his hands up. An independent autopsy has confirmed that Brown was shot after an alleged scuffle with Wilson.

Though there was no apparent racial motive in Wilson confronting Brown, his action clearly violated Brown's right to exercise his freedom of movement, and his rights. This civil right was violated the moment Wilson presumed that a young black man walking in a public thoroughfare had committed a crime. The safeguard of that right must be a fundamental concern of federal prosecutors.