The New Yorker was facing criticism Monday for publishing a lengthy profile of Darren Wilson, the former police office who shot and killed Michael Brown one year ago this month. Wilson was never prosecuted for Brown’s killing, which sparked days of turbulent clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. The Justice Department’s report on the shooting showed a complicated picture of a fight between an armed police officer and an unarmed teenage shoplifting suspect that spiraled out of control. But many on Twitter accused the magazine of being overly empathetic to Wilson, who was depicted as struggling to get a job and live an ordinary life in the wake of the killing.
While there is something jarring about hearing the story of Michael Brown’s death and its aftermath from Wilson’s point of view, the article is more nuanced than it’s getting credit for. Yes, it seems to offer a sympathetic portrayal of Wilson’s complaints that he can’t get another job as a police officer, but that can also be read as a neutral presentation of Wilson’s post-Ferguson life. And while it may seem insensitive, or even crude, to spill so much ink over a neutral assessment of a white police officer who faced few legal consequences for killing an unarmed black man, if that was the cost of getting additional insight into the psyche of a man whose actions might be most emblematic of a year of national reckoning on police brutality, then it was likely worth it.
In digging into Wilson’s life and the recent history of the St. Louis-area police forces he worked on, the story paints a picture not only of the well-documented issues of systemic racism in Ferguson’s police department, but of the implicit and explicit biases in Wilson’s own head. Here are the portions of the New Yorker story that paint the most damning picture of Wilson and the world in which he policed.
He thought of policing black neighborhoods as a method of career advancement:
When Wilson applied for a police job, he focussed on the northern portion of St. Louis County.* The towns in what is called North County tend to be poorer, and to have a higher percentage of black residents, than other towns in the St. Louis area—such as St. Peters, the broadly middle-class, white town where Wilson grew up. North County also has more crime. Wilson felt that working in a tough area would propel his career. “If you go there and you do three to five years, get your experience, you can kind of write your own ticket,” he said.
But he didn’t want to live in Ferguson because of the type of neighborhood he thought it was:
[W]ilson noted that, while he and Barb were on the force, they lived twenty miles outside Ferguson. They needed “that buffer”—a “chance to get out of that element.”
Wilson felt intimidated and unprepared to work in a high-poverty and mostly black neighborhood, so he took on a white mentor who he says sounded like a “black guy”:
A field-training officer named Mike McCarthy, who had been a cop for ten years, displayed no such discomfort. McCarthy, a thirty-nine-year-old Irish-American with short brown hair and a square chin, is a third-generation policeman who grew up in North County. Most of his childhood friends were African-American. “If you just talk to him on the phone, you’d think you’re talking to a black guy,” Wilson said. “He was able to relate to everyone up there.”
Wilson said that he approached McCarthy for help: “Mike, I don’t know what I’m doing. This is a culture shock. Would you help me? Because you obviously have that connection, and you can relate to them. You may be white, but they still respect you. So why can they respect you and not me?”
The police force where he first started as an officer had an incredibly racist recent history:
When Wilson became a police officer in Jennings, he was joining a department that had a reputation for racism. Wesley Bell, a newly elected member of the Ferguson City Council, told me that he used to avoid driving through Jennings “like the plague.” This feeling endures. The current mayor of Jennings, Yolonda Henderson, who is black, told me that African-Americans in nearby towns “still say, ‘No, no, no, I ain’t going over there.’ ”
Wilson recalls hearing “old-timers” talk about racism in Jennings’s past, but their stories didn’t make a vivid impression on him. McCarthy, however, said that in the seventies and eighties the Jennings police “did not play.” He added, “Basically, they’d beat you.” During that period, many blacks from St. Louis moved to North County. Numerous towns there went from being majority white to being majority black. The police forces remained almost completely white.
McCarthy showed me several police logs from those decades, and many entries documented bigotry on the part of Jennings authorities. In April, 1973, a lieutenant described a holdup that had occurred near the police station. The suspects were two black males. At the bottom of the entry, someone had written, “Men, you better leave your wallets at home. Niggers are going to come in the police station next and rob us.” An entry from December, 1979, described an eighteen-year-old black male who was believed to have been involved in the shooting of a police officer but was then released, “due to his lack of mental capacity.” Below this, someone had scrawled, “Kill the Fucker.”
Wilson thought the people in the St. Louis-area used this racist legacy as an “excuse”:
[Wilson] granted that, in North County, the overt racism of past decades affected “elders” who lived through that time. “People who experienced that, and were mistreated, have a legitimate claim,” he told me. “Other people don’t.” I asked him if he thought that young people in North County and elsewhere used this legacy as an excuse. “I think so,” he replied.
Wilson thought the basic dispute over policing in America is not about race, but about whether the police have too much or not enough authority:
He continued, “Everyone is so quick to jump on race. It’s not a race issue.” There were two opposing views about policing, he said: “There are people who feel that police have too much power, and they don’t like it. There are people who feel police don’t have enough power, and they don’t like it.”
He described Ferguson residents as too lazy to get jobs:
I asked him if he agreed with [Ferguson resident Scottie] Randolph that the neighborhood’s main problem was the absence of jobs. “There’s a lack of jobs everywhere,” he replied, brusquely. “But there’s also lack of initiative to get a job. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” He acknowledged that the jobs available in Ferguson often paid poorly, but added, “That’s how I started. You’ve got to start somewhere.”
And inner cities generally as having a “culture” problem:
Good values, Wilson insisted, needed to be learned at home. He spoke of a black single mother, in Ferguson, who was physically disabled and blind. She had several teen-age children, who “ran wild,” shooting guns, dealing drugs, and breaking into cars.
“They ran all over the mom. They didn’t respect her, so why would they respect me?” He added, “They’re so wrapped up in a different culture than—what I’m trying to say is, the right culture, the better one to pick from.”
This sounded like racial code language. I pressed him: what did he mean by “a different culture”? Wilson struggled to respond. He said that he meant “pre-gang culture, where you are just running in the streets—not worried about working in the morning, just worried about your immediate gratification.” He added, “It is the same younger culture that is everywhere in the inner cities.”
He agreed that Ferguson’s system of police fines abused residents:
The Justice Department report on the city of Ferguson notes that police officers were punished when they didn’t write enough tickets, and often issued multiple citations for a single stop. Wilson told me that he knew of an officer who had once issued sixteen. “What the hell is the point?” he asked me. He believed that such fines could create a “vicious cycle,” in which people could not pay what they owed, then were fined further for missing payments. “That’s almost abusive of power,” he told me.
But he still participated in the system:
I asked Wilson if he had issued multiple tickets. He said that he “usually” never wrote more than three.
Even though he saw firsthand that the system was abusive, he still thought the Justice Department’s report on those abuses was distorted:
Wilson told me that Ferguson’s force had a few bigoted members, but he denied that racism was institutional. The Justice Department’s numbers were “skewed,” he said. “You can make those numbers fit whatever agenda you want.”
But he never actually read the report:
Wilson hasn’t read the Justice Department’s report on systemic racism in Ferguson. “I’m not going to keep living in the past,” he said.
He told his 6-year-old stepson that the unrest in Ferguson was taking place because he “had to” shoot a “bad guy”:
Barb’s younger son, who was then six, asked why there were images on television of Ferguson burning. Wilson told me, “I said, ‘Well, I had to shoot somebody.’ And he goes, ‘Well, why did you shoot him? Was he a bad guy?’ I said, ‘Yeah, he was a bad guy.’ ”
Wilson’s own mentor conceded the shooting could have played out differently:
He insisted that he would have acted just as Wilson had. I then asked him to consider the initial moment of contact, when Wilson and Brown were still talking. “It might not have escalated to that point,” McCarthy conceded, uneasily. Later, he added, “There is likelihood that it could’ve avoided that confrontation—the escalation of that confrontation.”
He criticized Brown’s parents:
[Wilson said] “Do I think about who he was as a person? Not really, because it doesn’t matter at this point. Do I think he had the best upbringing? No. Not at all.”
He doesn’t like to eat in “mixed” company anymore:
At one point, I asked Wilson if he missed walking outside and going to restaurants. He told me that he still ate out, but only at certain places. “We try to go somewhere—how do I say this correctly?—with like-minded individuals,” he said. “You know. Where it’s not a mixing pot.”
Correction, 3:55 p.m.: This post originally misstated that the quoted text misspelled focussed. The word was spelled correctly.