Two Kinds of Crimes Caught on Video in Ferguson

When the chaos is over and criminal investigations begin, the way authorities scrutinize law-enforcement officers will be an important symbol of the city's approach to policing. 
Lucas Jackson/Reuters

There's no excuse for initiating violence amid protests. All who have been caught doing so in Ferguson, Missouri, ought to be prosecuted, whether they are police officers or residents. When stores are looted and molotov cocktails thrown, it is common and just for law-enforcement officials to identify perpetrators once things have quieted down.

It is less common for officials to pore over video tapes looking for misbehavior among their own. Yet doing so is arguably more important to upholding law and order.  

And there's already a lot of illustrative footage out of Ferguson.

CNN's Jake Tapper put together a short feature on the looting of immigrant-owned stores. As you can see in the video below, the faces of several perpetrators are exposed via surveillance cameras:

I'm confident in the ability of the U.S. justice system to prosecute crimes like that. But what about when an officer of the law is caught on video doing what, at the very minimum, appears to be a crime? Consider Missouri state law (emphasis added):

A person is guilty of assault in the third degree if he:

  • attempts to physically injure another person or recklessly causes physical injury to another
  • negligently causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon
  • purposely threatens another person, causing that person to feel afraid that he is about to suffer serious physical injury
  • recklessly engages in conduct that creates a grave risk of death or serious physical injury to another person
  • intentionally engages in physical contact with another that the victim finds offensive or provocative, with knowledge that the victim will find it offensive or provocative, or
  • knowingly engages in offensive or provocative contact with an incapacitated person.

(Mo. Ann. Stat. §565.070.)

Now watch this video footage of a police officer advancing on a member of the media—reportedly with a weapon drawn, although that isn't visible in the shot—and audibly threatening to "shell" the cameraman if he doesn't turn his light off immediately (presumably with a tear gas or smoke canister, although that isn't entirely clear):

If an armed, black protestor in Ferguson approached a journalist as he broadcasted and threatened to shell him if the he didn't turn off the light on his camera, there's little doubt that authorities would track down the protestor, investigate, and more than likely charge him with a crime.

When order is restored in Ferguson and the prosecutions begin, the fate of this officer will be instructive. If he escapes investigation, it will be another sign that, in Ferguson, there's not even the pretense of equality between black men and white policemen. The way the department treats this officer, who threatened and antagonized a person engaged in a legal activity, will be a clear illustration of how the city sees its authority figures—and, perhaps, why its citizens don't trust them. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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