St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch gave a long, meandering and often defensive press conference Monday night announcing that there would be no indictment against the white police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo., in August.
The tone of his prepared remarks was less empathetic than accusatory — of the media for fanning unrest, of witnesses who changed their stories, of a community tempted to respond with more destruction. Throughout, McCulloch sounded as if he were making the case for the defense — or at least a defense of his office — more than the prosecution. And the performance only reinforced the conviction of many of his critics that McCulloch never sincerely sought an indictment anyway.
One of the more bewildering passages in his press conference, though, came after the prosecutor's 25-minute speech and during the question-and-answer session. One reporter asked McCulloch to explain for the public "why is this justice, this outcome?" Part of his reply:
I understand some people have made up their minds — both ways — and are not going to change. There isn’t a whole lot I can do. What I would urge them to do is express those feelings, express them in a constructive way, and try to make some changes so that nothing like this ever happens again.
Another reporter then asked the logical follow-up: Exactly what would those changes look like?
Should there be policies in place forbidding police officers from shooting in a situation where a suspect has his hands at his stomach, or at his side, or in the air? McCulloch again:
It’s difficult to answer. In fact, it’s impossible to answer questions like that because there are so many variables that play into every case. There’s just no real way to answer a question like that. So you have to look at every bit of information in every case that comes in. The idea I hope is to avoid ever being in that situation.
What's so troubling about this is that McCulloch hangs his condolences to the community on vague notions of change, but doesn't offer anything specific about what he means. Policy changes? Cultural changes? No, he actually says "it's impossible" to come up with an answer to his own question.
A few moments later, he does it again, referring to young men -- black and white -- killed by police officers:
We look at each and every one of those and hopefully learn from every one of those how to avoid being in that situation in the future, whether it’s a justified shooting. That’s what has to go. I think the people in the community, they need to make their voices heard. And they need to address those issues, so that we get those issues, so that we’re never in this position again.
Again, he reinforces the idea that there's something we're supposed to learn to help us prevent another killing like Michael Brown's. But the message comes out all muddled, a banal series of generalities.
McCulloch makes no reference to changing police procedures, or to the deeper issue of mistrust between law enforcement and communities of color. He seems to lay the responsibility for preventing this from happening again at the feet of "the community," which needs to "address those issues."
Worst of all, when he says we need to make sure "we're never in this position again," it's not clear just what he means by "this position," "this situation."
Is that the position where a police officer feels so threatened by a young black that he must discharge his weapon?
Or the position where a community feels so deeply denied justice that it riots?
Is it the position where police officers and community members remain intensely suspicious of each other?
The question of what we're trying to prevent matters a great deal if we really want to answer the question of how we stave off such tragedies in the future.