Innocent until proven guilty, unless you’re a police officer

Dan Lucas_July 2012_BW

by Dan Lucas

It’s been a very difficult month for the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. There have been riots, looting, protests and heightened racial tensions in the wake of a police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. One thing that has surprised me has been how quickly many people, especially in the media, jumped to the assumption that the police officer acted improperly. It’s been several weeks now and no one has enough information yet to make any determination — and yet they were making that determination just days after the shooting. Running with that assumption undoubtedly made things worse in an already volatile situation.

The police officer involved, Darren Wilson, is being publicly villainized. The Washington Post reports that he is “now in a secret location and under police protection due to death threats.” The national media are presenting misleading and deceptive impressions, even in their use of the term “unarmed teenager” when describing Michael Brown. He was a 6’4, 292 pound 18-year-old. Why not refer to him as a young man or just an 18-year-old? Teenager conveys a very different impression. Additionally, the unexplained use of the term “unarmed” is just as likely to convey a misconception.

CNN reported that “Authorities counter that Brown attacked the officer in his car and tried to take his gun.” If he’s going to be described as “unarmed”, it needs to be explained that he was a 6’4, 292 pound 18-year-old who may have been trying to take the officer’s gun. Further, just because someone is “unarmed” it doesn’t mean that they don’t pose a threat of grave bodily injury or death to the officer. There were 110 homicides in Oregon in 2012. In up to a third of those homicides, the killers were “unarmed” – they had no gun, knife or blunt object.  The police chief in Ferguson said the officer was taken to the hospital for treatment of his swollen face.

We weren’t there. We don’t know what happened yet.

But that’s the point, none of those commenting know either. Don’t we owe the police we ask to protect us more than assuming they’re guilty before the facts are known?

As each week passes more information comes out. We’ve learned that Officer Wilson “had no previous complaints against him” and that there’s a video that appears to show Michael Brown carrying out a strong-armed robbery of a convenience store minutes before the shooting. And we still don’t know all the facts.

We ask a great deal of police, and they risk everything for us. The Officer Down Memorial Page says that 67 police officers have died in the line of duty in the U.S. so far this year — that means that a police officer is killed in the line of duty every 3.5 days. The most recent case of an officer being killed in the line of duty in Oregon was nine months ago when Officer Robert Libke of the Oregon City Police Department was killed. He was survived by his expectant wife.

We assume criminals are innocent until proven guilty. The media very carefully preface the supposed wrongdoings with “alleged.”

Don’t we owe police the same consideration, the same assumption of innocence? We ask them to put themselves into life-and-death situations on our behalf and to make split-second decisions. Is it right to then second guess them without having all the facts?

I hope and pray that there will continue to be brave and selfless men and women who are willing to put on the uniform, and to daily put their lives on the line for us. And I hope and pray that their wives or husbands and families will let them.

UPDATE – Oct 2015: The Fallen Officer Memorial Highway Sign for Oregon City Officer Robert Libke will be placed on Hwy 26 westbound near the Nehalem River turn off. The location was chosen by the Libke Family as it is near where Officer Libke spent time hunting.

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