Death, Protest and Guilt in Ferguson

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When Scottie McCown died ten years ago, it did not cause a nationwide stir. Maryland paid little notice. There was not much attention paid in Baltimore, where Officer McCown had shot and permanently disabled a local teenager decades before.

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Click here for the audio version of this article.

The Baltimore protests in 1980 paralleled those we see today here in Missouri to one more deadly incident. Young black teenagers in America seem to continue as routine casualties. So it was in Baltimore three decades ago.

Riots had been massive in Miami at the acquittal of police officers who had beaten to death a motorcyclist after an eight minute chase. The cyclist was driving on a suspended license and likely had been trying to escape a fine.

I was living in the Baltimore area at the time. Like most area residents, I paid little attention to details. A 17 year old black kid had gone into a sub shop with a friend. He was unarmed. As he stood before the counter, he was shot in the back three times by a Baltimore city police detective.

There were raucous press events. Non-violent protests provided an outlet for rage. Baltimore authorities were mindful of the violence in Miami. They wanted to avoid similar racial conflict in Baltimore. A brief hearing was held. Officer McCown was fired, later sued for a million dollars by the young man and his parents.

Civil hearings quoted the conclusions of the lightning fast police review hearing.The officer had options:

He did not “identify himself as a Police Officer to the owner or employee of the Pizza shop and request they telephone for a back-up unit” or“accost the suspects, identify himself as a Police Officer, and conduct a stop and frisk.” Finally, “there existed insufficient facts and circumstances to warrant reasonable belief of imminent danger to himself.”

Mitigating details were unimportant at the time. Nobody, myself included, had time for mitigation. An unarmed kid would never walk again. What could justify that?

A decade later, author David Simon briefly reviewed the case.

In the area of Erdman Street where the shooting occurred, robberies had been committed in which a small chrome pistol had been used. The detective had noticed a couple of young men in a familiar pattern, looking through the storefront window. The pattern was repeated several times. Were they casing the place? Only when most customers had left did they enter.

Detective McCown readied his own revolver, just in case. As one of the young men suddenly faced the shop owner, McCown saw the metallic flash. The shop owner had not yet noticed the mortal danger facing him. The detective fired three times, screamed at the accomplice to stand still, and yelled at the shop owner to call police emergency.

Then he saw the metallic flash had been from a lighter. There had been no robbery, no accomplice, no mortal danger.

Simon makes the case that we, members of the public, are trapped in a fictional world in which no bad shooting can happen at the hands of a good police officer. Ambiguity is seldom a reality after the fact. But a lack of certainty is a fact of life in each professional moment of a fallible human. What Simon calls “the myth of perfection” haunts every incident.

It doesn’t matter that a shouted warning concedes every advantage to the gunman, that death can come in the time it takes for a cop to identify himself or demand that a suspect relinquish a weapon. It doesn’t matter that in a confrontation of little more than a second or two, a cop is lucky if he can hit center mass from a distance of twenty feet, much less target extremities or shoot a weapon from a suspect’s hand. And it doesn’t matter whether a cop is an honorable man, whether he truly believes he is in danger, whether the shooting of a black suspect sickens him no less than if the man were white.

– David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, 1991

The young man in Baltimore did not deserve to be shot. He did not deserve a life of partial paralysis. The officer did not deserve the public censure that became a part of his life.

A few miles from my home here in Missouri, 34 years later, a new police shooting has aroused community anger. Local resident Michael Brown has been killed on a residential street in Ferguson. He had just graduated from High School.

The demands for justice, to the extent that the demands are specific to this case, are premature. Justice without process is not justice. Judgment that comes before evidence is not justice.

My friend, liberal thinker Michael J. Scott, is a former police officer. He makes a brief point“… we don’t yet have the facts so I’m going to reserve judgement.”

As those facts slowly dribble out, it has become difficult to compose a case that would justify the shooting. Was there an assault on the officer? Was Michael Brown sufficiently provoked by insult – Get the f*** out of the street – to react with violence? Did the young man decide that apprehension for an earlier forceful robbery was worth attacking a uniformed officer? Was there some other perceived threat?

What is known so far obstructs the search for a reasonable explanation. The number of shots fired, the distances involved, the accounts of a young man with arms raised in surrender, all join to strain the imagination. The slow motion revelation of those details has not helped. The absence of evidence has itself become evidence.

And so there has been outrage. The initial reaction by police authorities to community anger leaves little to the imagination. The lack of distinction between legitimate protests on one hand, and attacks on police, or destruction or looting on the other, has been beyond justification. The relentless march of military level force, the armament and equipment, the early disproportionate response did little to help.

These were not the decisions of individual police officers. Those in charge seem to have achieved a complete disconnect from the consequence of their actions. What are we to expect when protest is necessary and peaceful protest is made impossible?

Mercifully, authority seems to have shifted to more responsible command.

Separating the actions of authorities from the initial shooting is not an easy emotional leap. But it is a necessary leap. In the fullness of time, as evidence bleeds forth, the truth surrounding the death of young Michael Brown will unfold.

Official ineptitude should not be part of that evidence.

This article is a collaboration between MadMikesAmerica and FairandUnbalanced.

About Post Author

Burr Deming

Burr is a husband, father, and computer programmer, who writes and records from St. Louis. On Sundays, he sings in a praise band at the local Methodist Church. On Saturdays, weather permitting, he mows the lawn under the supervision of his wife. He can be found at
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9 years ago

Once again only half truths are written.
No mention about the criminal history of Ja Wan or his buddy Speedy, which is reflected in body language.
No mention that he (Ja Wan) was not shot 3 times, or in the back, but once and under the arm as he was raising his arm while reaching in his pants waist as if he was reaching for a weapon.
No mention of the fact that Speedy was seen bending over Ja Wan and grabbing something, and leaving the scene. Because it’s the responsibility of a police officer to render aid, Det. McCown stayed with the person he had just shot, even though he believed that that person had attempted to kill him.
No mention of the fact that the whole hearing board acquitted Scottie, but because the black associations in the city threatened to “burn this city to the ground”, the Police Commissioner over threw their decision, and fired Scottie anyway.
No mention that the States Attorney’s office refused to charge Det. McCown because there was “no criminal intent”.
No mention to the fact that while in the hospital, Speedy and Ja Wan were over heard by a patient walking down the hall, laughing about how they had gotten away with attempting to rob the white man in the pizza shop, but because the man was a recovering alcoholic (of 23yrs.)the department deemed his testimony as “questionable”, and refused to allow him to testify.
No mention of the woman in the pizza shop with her children, leaving in a hurry, because she saw that “those boys were going to rob that white man”. But because of threats against her and her children, she was told (by Det. McCown) not to testify, because it wasn’t worth the risk.
No mention of the NAACP going to Det. McCown’s black partner, and telling him they wanted him to testify that Scottie was a racist, and a bigot, and he refused to do it, and tore his membership card up in their faces.
You’ve obviously forgot to mention so many facts. It makes me wonder if you really remember the event you claim to recall very well.
You call this event a “bad shooting”. I think you need to walk in an officer’s shoes before you have the right to make that judgement.

9 years ago

A rather selective memory of the events surrounding the so-call Juan Magee shooting in Baltimore. As a former Baltimore police officer and one who worked for five years in the West Baltimore district that, at the time, was one of the most crime-ridden places on the planet , I’t would be most interesting if you actually went back to Baltimore and interviewed some of the people surrounding the Juan shooting.
Some facts you “over looked:”

Scott McCown was not a racist. Just ask his black detective partner who refused to testify to a NAACP team that wanted to “get that white SOB pig.” Scott never had a complaint lodged against him on any occasion before the incident involving racism.

Most damming, is your apparent memory loss of the facts concerning Juan’s criminal activities, even before the attempted robbery of the carryout. Breaking and entering, rape, together with his accomplice, threats against witnesses—black woman and her family who witnessed the attempted robbery, and who were later told by McCown not to testify because she and her family would be hurt by Juan’s friends who put out the word on the street that the witness would have her house burned down if she did. And lets not forget that neither the police or the city prosecutor’s office, or the federal team sent in found anything like a racist police shooting incident. The police commissioner, the detestable individual that he was saw an opportunity to get rid of a “problem” rather that support a good cop.

So, believe what you want, but don’t put Scott McCown in the same boat with town hick cop that shoots an unarmed kid with no record six times. And next time try to do some honest research, not depend on your woefully inadequate selective memory.

Reply to  Jim
9 years ago

Thank you Jim.

You make a number of good points. They are so good, in fact, I made them myself in the article you scanned.

You seem to have have missed “a fictional world in which no bad shooting can happen at the hands of a good police officer.” You may want to read the excerpt from David Simon which was included for the convenience of readers who got further than did you. I thought his defense of Scott McCown was compelling. You may agree when you get to it.

You seem to believe the officer did not deserve the public censure that became a part of his life. Perhaps you would also agree with the second sentence after the excerpt from Mr. Simon. The sentence reads, “The officer did not deserve the public censure that became a part of his life.”

It was a bad shooting, Jim. It was a bad shooting regardless of the later history of the teen who was crippled. It would not have been a worse shooting if the teen had been a valedictorian who later cured cancer. The detective did not take that later history into account when he shot. If he could have, it would have been very wrong. We do not shoot unarmed people because of an uncertain future.

The point was that it was wrong to condemn the officer.

Before you retire into self-recrimination, I should confess that reacting to a written piece before completing it is a common fault. I’ve done it myself, as you can see here.

Oh, about relying on faulty memory: the teen’s name was not Juan. Depending on the account, it was Ja-Wan McGee. Don’t be too embarrassed, though. I had to look it up myself. That was during the research which you did not get to. At my age, you learn not to rely too much on memory.

I am a little disappointed at your reflexively harsh judgment about the officer from Ferguson, Missouri. I hope that, in completing the article, you might withdraw your condemnation of the “hick cop that shoots an unarmed kid with no record six times.”

Like me, you may decide to withhold your own verdict until the facts are in.

Reply to  Jim
9 years ago

As a former police officer myself, I object to your condemnation and characterization of Officer Darren Wilson. You have condemned the officer before the facts are in. Quite frankly, I’m surprised that you don’t know the law when it comes to shooting a fleeing felon. Perhaps you should familiarize yourself with Tennessee v Garner which says while you cannot use deadly force against a fleeing felon simply because he is fleeing, you can if he or she poses a threat to either yourself or others. Since Brown had just robbed a convenience store by strongarming the clerk, a Class B felony, and had struck the officer and tried to remove his gun, Officer Wilson will no doubt be able to articulate the threat. As a consequence he could have shot him as many times as he wished. The evidence will show that Brown was charging the officer, all 6’4, 250 pounds of him at the time he was shot.

9 years ago


It appears he was unarmed and shot 6 times – finally in the top of the head.

This doesn’t sound good but, until all the facts are established perhaps we should ‘wait and see’.

9 years ago

I knew Scott and I thank you for the objective story.

9 years ago

Mary Beth, can you supply some info on what makes it seem obvious? I’d like to learn more about what is happening.

Mary Beth Elderton
9 years ago

From here, not a few miles away, it is obvious that the police, not the people, are aggravating and escalating the situation.

Reply to  Mary Beth Elderton
9 years ago

Mary Beth I’m with Chuck. How does it seem “obvious?” Would you prefer the police just hang around and not protect innocent people and businesses from dirtbags?

9 years ago

This is my favorite commentary on this situation. It transcends the faddish behavior of polarized confirmation bias and applies real critical thinking. Thanks.

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