The shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer in a suburb of St. Louis over the weekend has evoked a repeat of the turmoil that followed the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida two years ago. In both cases young African-American men just entering adulthood died violently under circumstances that fostered questions about whether they were targeted solely because of their race, and in both cases the killers justified their actions by claiming self-defense.
This is a pattern that has become depressingly familiar in African-American communities across the country and has stoked the anger and resentment against police. Authorities need to conduct a thorough investigation into what happened and make the results known as quickly as possible not only to hold those responsible to account but to prevent a recurrence of similar incidents in the future.
Police initially claimed the incident began after 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was walking with a friend, engaged in a "physical confrontation" with an officer from the Ferguson, Mo., police department. They said a struggle ensued involving the officer's service weapon. Police said the officer was pushed back into his squad car and one shot was fired from the officer's gun inside the car. The officer then got out of the car and fired several more shots at the teen, who was killed about 35 feet away from the vehicle.
But so far police have offered no explanation for what sparked the alleged confrontation, nor of who fired the shot inside the car or why the officer fired so many shots at Mr. Brown after leaving his vehicle, or how a confrontation next to and inside a vehicle ended with a corpse a dozen yards away. Meanwhile, a witness who was walking with the victim has disputed the police account, saying the officer opened fire when Mr. Brown, who was said to have had his hands up, refused to move from the middle of the street to the sidewalk. An autopsy Sunday showed Mr. Brown was hit by multiple rounds from the officer's gun.
The shooting has sparked days of solemn vigils and angry protests from black Ferguson residents. On Sunday hundreds of people faced off against officers wearing riot gear to press their complaint that people of color were being unfairly targeted by police because of their race, and a small number of demonstrators looted stores and shops in the area. Local residents described the unrest as a expression of long-standing frustrations over police routinely stopping young black men for trivial reasons and employing excessive force.
There are certainly enough questions surrounding Brown's death to warrant the U.S. Justice Department's decision Monday to open its own separate investigation into possible civil rights violations. Ferguson authorities have turned the local investigation over to the St. Louis County police department, none of whose officers were involved in the shooting. County police chief Jon Belmar said he could understand why the public might be skeptical about whether his department could conduct an impartial investigation of fellow police officers but pleaded for patience as it pursued what he called a very sensitive and complex case.
Meanwhile, Mr. Brown's parents have hired Benjamin Crump, the lawyer who represented Trayvon Martin's family, to advise them as the federal and local investigations proceed. Reflecting the outrage felt by African-Americans nationwide over a string of recent deaths of young black men at the hands of police, Mr. Crump has called the Brown shooting "another senseless death of another person of color." Echoing that sentiment, NAACP President Cornell William Brooks, who arrived in Missouri after the shooting, said "the death of yet another African American at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve the community where he lived is heartbreaking." Other civil rights leaders have warned that a thorough, timely and transparent investigation is the only way to restore black residents' faith in local law enforcement.
There's no doubt the case has struck a raw nerve, or that anything short of holding those found to be responsible for this tragedy will just exacerbate the ill-feeling and mistrust of police in African-American communities. There is no justification for looting and lawless behavior in the aftermath of such incidents, but at the same time police must learn to conduct themselves in a way that gains the confidence and respect of those they are sworn to serve and that starts with a recognition that every young black man walking down the street isn't a potential criminal who deserves to be harassed and intimidated for no reason at all.
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