Wilson, now 28, grew up in a “chaotic” home. His mom died when he was 16, after her conviction and sentencing to 5 years of probation for financial crimes. As a young adult, he sought order, and thought he might find it in the police force. Until Aug. 9, 2014 Wilson found so much routine, so much order, that he barely made a mark. He was quietly situated within the complicated power dynamics of the St. Louis area’s law enforcement system – the same one challenged by protesters and critics in recent weeks.
At least, that’s what the few details that have emerged about Wilson’s life tell us. The officer had nearly a week’s head start on the public after the shooting, before law enforcement officials finally gave reporters his name. By then, whatever social media accounts he had were gone, and almost everyone close to him decided to keep quiet.
Because of that silence – and also because the days following Brown’s death revealed a community’s distrust of more than just Darren Wilson – both profiles focus on the start of Wilson’s career, which happened to be in a St. Louis-area police force so troubled that eventually the county took it over. Wilson became an officer in 2009, in a suburb called Jennings. Like Ferguson, where he eventually ended up, Jennings was a majority African American town policed by a majority white police force.
Rodney Epps, a city council member, described the ensuing tension to The Post:
“You’re dealing with white cops, and they don’t know how to address black people,” Epps said. “The straw that broke the camel’s back, an officer shot at a female. She was stopped for a traffic violation. She had a child in the back [of the] car and was probably worried about getting locked up. And this officer chased her down Highway 70, past city limits, and took a shot at her. Just ridiculous.”
Eventually, facing a number of lawsuits (not to mention a federal investigation into the department’s grant money spending), the city of Jennings disbanded the force and brought in the county police department in 2011. As the New York Times reported, 12 of the 40 officers in the Jennings force found jobs with the county police, but not Wilson. He ended up taking a job in Ferguson, where he made $45,302 a year.
By the available accounts, Wilson’s time in Jennings was unremarkable. Former Jennings police chief Robert Orr told the Times that he barely remembered Wilson, noting ” that must mean he never got in any trouble, because that’s when they usually came to me.” The man who oversaw the Jennings force transition to county control, Lt. Jeff Fuesting, gave a similar account to The Post: “My impression is he didn’t go above and beyond, and he didn’t get in any trouble.” Fuesting went on to describe the department in which Wilson was supposed to learn how to be an officer:
“There was a disconnect between the community and the police department. There were just too many instances of police tactics which put the credibility of the police department in jeopardy. Complaints against officers. There was a communication breakdown between the police and the community. There were allegations involving use of force that raised questions.”
In 2013, Wilson reached high-mark of his law enforcement career when he subdued a man who was in the middle of a drug transaction. He won a commendation for it. Speaking to the New York Times, the mother of the man Wilson subdued said she was “a little shocked” to find out that the same officer who killed Michael Brown was the one who ensured the arrest of her son. She added: “I’m also a little relieved that [my nephew] wasn’t badly injured.”
Although many who might be able to defend Wilson have also declined to speak to the media, a few showed up to a pro-Wilson rally at a St. Louis area pub, attended by the Washington Post:
Several in the crowd had connections to law enforcement, including one who said he knew Wilson from working in private security — and got a call from him on the night of Aug. 9. He said Wilson called to say he couldn’t make it to work because of the shooting.
“Really surprised me that he would think to notify somebody to cover a position that he was responsible for after being involved in what he was involved in.
Beyond that, there are the few personal details, most of which we already knew. Wilson is divorced. He played hockey in high school, and was good enough for varsity but not great enough to stand out. He was born in Texas, but grew up in the St. Louis area. And, as the few speaking to the media who knew him have said, Wilson is a quiet man who keeps a low profile, the same qualities that have made it relatively difficult to enter into his past.