In a press conference that can most charitably be described as bizarre, the chief of police in Ferguson, Missouri has apparently walked back the release this morning of bombshell security camera footage apparently showing Michael Brown robbing a store shortly before he was shot and killed by a local police officer.
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said the officer who shot Brown, Darren Wilson, did not approach him in response to the robbery call — a conclusion that was strongly implied by the footage released this morning and reports that the store owner who was subjected to a “strong-arm” robbery had just called 911. Jackson said the stop was only related to Brown’s walking in the center of a street and obstructing traffic and that Wilson did not know Brown was a suspect in the robbery.
Jackson said the department released the footage in response to many media requests.
“Too many people had requested it and I had to release it to you,” Jackson said. He also said the department had made all its evidence available.
“We’ve given you every bit of information we have now,” Jackson said. “I don’t think there’s anything else we have to give out.”
But Jackson made clear that Wilson’s fatal encounter with Brown was unrelated to the footage, telling reporters, “His initial contact was not related to the robbery.”
Jackson struggled to clarify why the footage had been released, repeatedly saying the department had been inundated by requests for it.
This does not appear to make much sense, however. The connection between the footage and the shooting of Brown initially seemed to be clear: Among other things, courts have ruled that lethal force can be justified against fleeing felony suspects. This justification goes away, however, if Wilson, as Jackson appeared to say, was not responding to the robbery call and did not know Brown was a suspect. The video — which shows Brown in a belligerent and lawless mood shortly before his shooting — may still cast some doubt on claims that Brown was prone with his hands raised in a surrender posture at the time of the shooting, though it is not clear whether the police department is claiming that the shooting occurred during an ongoing fight.
The video may also prove useful in Wilson’s defense by establishing that the primary witness claiming Brown had his hands raised at the time of the shooting was in fact his accomplice in the robbery — a point that would do much to discredit that testimony. However, other witnesses have also claimed Wilson was not in physical danger when he shot Brown.
As an exercise in crisis communication, Jackson’s press conference was clearly unsuccessful. Media and normal people were left with more questions than answers, and Jackson’s claim that the department had released all relevant information seems to be contradicted by his simultaneous admission that the video was not related to the police contact that resulted in Brown’s shooting. Brown supporters and critics of the Ferguson police have spent much of the day claiming the release of the footage was designed to discredit Brown and perhaps take some of the edge off the release of Wilson’s name — a suspicion that only seems to have been underscored by Jackson’s statements.
You could write a whole book on how NOT to handle crisis communications using just the #Ferguson police department’s handling of news today.— Tim Cavanaugh (@bigtimcavanaugh) August 15, 2014