Ferguson, Missouri, was sued by the family of an unarmed black teenager whose fatal shooting by a police officer triggered nationwide protests, while subsequent deaths at the hands of police fueled a national debate about how law enforcement treats minorities.
The lawsuit by Michael Brown’s parents may turn out to be the only legal proceeding to publicly examine the killing. A state grand jury declined in November to charge officer Darren Wilson, and the U.S. Justice Department said on March 4 that it also wouldn’t file charges.
The shooting of Brown, 18, during a midday street encounter on Aug. 9 was one of several police killings of black males in the past year that spurred protesters to call law enforcement to account for the treatment of black suspects. The choke-hold death of Eric Garner on New York City’s Staten Island and the November shooting of a 12-year-old wielding a replica gun by a Cleveland policeman also sparked demonstrations.
The Brown’s family lawyer Benjamin Crump said this country must “stop the sanctioning of the killing of unarmed people of color around the country.”
Other deaths have also sparked scrutiny of police tactics and outrage among blacks and civil rights’ advocates.
On April 7, an officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, was charged with murder for shooting a 50-year-old black man after they scuffled. In a killing captured on video by a bystander, Michael Slager shot Walter Scott as he ran away from the officer.
The April 19 death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray after his arrest by Baltimore police is being investigated by the Justice Department. Gray suffered severe spinal-cord injuries while in police custody, the Washington Post reported.
The Justice Department in a March 4 report depicted the Ferguson police and local court system as riddled with bias in a mostly black city of 21,000. Police Chief Thomas Jackson and City Manager John Shaw resigned following the report. Municipal Court Judge Ronald Brockmeyer stepped down after the state Supreme Court appointed an appellate judge to take over his duties.
Jackson also is named as a defendant in the Brown family’s complaint, which cites conditions identified in the Justice Department report as contributing to the circumstances of their son’s death.
Brown was shot minutes after stealing a fistful of cigarillos from a local convenience store. Wilson, who’d heard a radio report describing the offender and a companion, soon saw the teenager and friend Dorian Johnson walking in the middle of a two-way street.
Wilson stopped his police SUV, backed up past Brown and Johnson and then turned so that his vehicle blocked traffic, according to the officer’s grand jury testimony, which was made public.
While Wilson was still inside the vehicle, a struggle ensued and at least one shot was fired from his gun, striking Brown in the hand.
Brown retreated from the SUV as Wilson began to pursue him on foot, according to the grand jury testimony. Witness accounts differed as to whether the teenager then turned to surrender or charged at the officer. Wilson shot Brown several more times, including twice in the head, killing him.
Wilson resigned as a police officer in November.
Wilson was never rigorously questioned by authorities about the shooting, including during the grand jury proceedings, Crump said.
“We can’t believe that the shooter of an unarmed, 18-year-old has never been cross-examined,” Crump told reporters outside the county courthouse in Clayton, Missouri, where the lawsuit was filed.
Brown’s parents attended the press conference but didn’t speak.
Wilson’s lawyer, Neil Bruntrager, and Jeff Small, a spokesman for Ferguson, didn’t return phone calls for comment.
In addition to the civil rights claim leveled at Wilson, Brown’s parents accuse the city and Jackson of failing to properly train the officer or conduct a fair and impartial investigation.
They’re seeking at least $75,000 in compensatory damages, plus a punitive award. The lawsuit was filed by Clayton lawyer Anthony Gray and the Tallahassee, Florida, firm Parks & Crump LLC.
The case is Brown v. City of Ferguson, 15SL-CC01367, Twenty-first Judicial Circuit, St. Louis County, Missouri (Clayton).