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Opinion Darren Wilson and guilt by association

In this handout photo provided by the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office, Darren Wilson poses in an evidence photo at the hospital the day he shot Michael Brown. (Handout/Getty Images)

Colbert King highlighted something in his Saturday column that leapt off the pages of Darren Wilson’s testimony for me, too. The now-former Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown on Aug. 9 was asked about his “relationship with the residents” of the unarmed teenager’s apartment complex. Not only did the prosecutor’s questions strike me as hand-holding, but also Wilson’s broad-brush responses made my skin crawl.

Q: Did you guys have a volatile, well, how can I put this. Did you not really get along well with the folks that lived in that apartment, not you personally, I mean the police in general?
Wilson: It is an antipolice area for sure.
Q: And when you say antipolice, tell me more?
Wilson: There’s a lot of gangs that reside or associate with that area. There’s a lot of violence in that area, there’s a lot of gun activity, drug activity, it is just not a very well-liked community. That community doesn’t like the police.
Q: Were you pretty much on high alert being in that community by yourself, especially when Michael Brown said, ‘[expletive] what you say,’ I think he said?
Wilson: Yes.
Q: You were on pretty high alert at that point knowing the vicinity and the area that you’re in?
Wilson: Yes, that’s not an area where you can take anything really. Like I said, it is a hostile environment. There are good people over there, there really are, but I mean there is an influx of gang activity in that area.

What Wilson said is barely a few moments in his testimony, but its ugliness is in keeping with his overall tone about Brown. That nice bit about there being “good people over there” after trashing the entire community is no antidote to the poisoned opinion of the grand jury.

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Alexandra Natapoff was equally unamused. I had the good fortune of spending Thanksgiving with the associate dean for research and professor of law at Loyola Law School. Natapoff is also an expert on criminal informants and the author of “Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.” Her current work is on misdemeanors and their effect on the criminal justice system, which I will get to in another post because of its connection to Ferguson.

“In some ways, we can understand Wilson’s response as classic guilt-by-association, and it’s one of the great complaints that African American neighborhoods have had for decades,” Natapoff told me. “Police officers have been told by authorities as high as the Supreme Court that they can draw inferences in high-crime neighborhoods or low-income or urban neighborhoods,” she continued, referring to the 2000 Supreme Court case Illinois v. Wardlow. This has “permitted police to drive devastating conclusions by the mere fact that the young person happens to live there.”

Natapoff then eloquently explained why such guilt-by-association corrodes policing and communities.

When you ask a police officer about his relationship to the residents of a community, in effect you’re asking the police officer what kind of public servant are you? Are you protecting the people of that community? Are you doing your job? And instead Wilson’s answer is an excuse. An excuse for the failure to protect victims in that neighborhood. An excuse for not providing the same level of services and respect and protection that other communities receive. And he does it through guilt by association. He conflates the community and the residents with so-called gangs. And once he does that it’s as if we’re being told that his excuse for not treating Michael Brown as a child and a resident and someone who he is paid by the taxpayers to protect and care for instead that he’s entitled to conflate Michael Brown because of the color of his skin and the neighborhood in which he lives with known criminals. In our system of criminal justice, you’re supposed to be innocent until you’re proven guilty….The idea that Wilson wouldn’t even consider Michael Brown to be one of his charges and one of his constituents and instead immediately associate him with criminals goes to the heart of why we see incidents like this occur.

But Brown did shoplift those cigarillos from a convenience store minutes before his fateful encounter with Wilson. Didn’t guilt-by-association apply in this case? Natapoff’s emphatic response was no.

I don’t know what percentage of American teenagers have taken something from a store that they shouldn’t have taken. But no matter how many lipsticks or cigarillos or packs of gum young people take from a store, it doesn’t make them a criminal gang member. It doesn’t make them a violent offender. And it doesn’t mean the police have the right to treat them as such….It’s absurd to equate a teenager who took at most a couple dollars worth of trinkets from a store with a violent gang member merely because the neighborhood that he lives in and the color of his skin. And by permitting that false association, we permit police officers to use violence against members of the community who couldn’t possibly deserve it. Twenty-five percent of all Americans have a criminal record. Does that mean police officers are justified in shooting a quarter of the population? That can’t possibly be the answer.

Natapoff’s defense of Brown’s neighborhood is as broad as Wilson’s condemnation of it. But I’ll take Natapoff’s view any day. It is more true to our national ideals than the reality presented by Wilson’s unbelievable actions.

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In an hour-long interview with ABC News correspondent George Stephanopoulos, officer Darren Wilson described what happened the day he shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. (Video: Reuters)