Darren Wilson and American Policing in a Nutshell

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In August the New Yorker published a controversial article focused on Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, MO police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/10/the-cop). The magazine faced some criticism for simply reporting Wilson’s point of view without critical comment. But a careful reading of this piece of “clean” journalism tells us everything we need to know about Mr. Wilson and why Michael Brown died. It also tells us a great deal about what is wrong with policing in the United States. Darren Wilson’s own words are a devastating critique.

First, Wilson didn’t live in the community he was policing and had negative, and indeed, racist images of that community. Wilson and his wife lived 20 miles outside of Ferguson because they felt they needed “that buffer”—a “chance to get out of that element.” And what exactly did he mean by that “element”? Wilson described the culture of the community he was supposed to serve and protect as having a “different culture.” In describing that “different culture” Wilson relied on words that are a thinly veiled racist code: “pre-gang culture, where you are just running in the streets—not worried about working in the morning, just worried about your immediate gratification … It is the same younger culture that is everywhere in the inner cities.” Ignoring problems of massive unemployment, a failed educational system, and a total lack of recreational and cultural outlets for young people, Wilson uncritically and without facts or critical reflection just didn’t like the people he was being paid to serve. He admitted jobs were hard to find and paid menial wages, but to him that was simply a matter of character: “There’s a lack of jobs everywhere. But there’s also lack of initiative to get a job. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” In fact, Wilson didn’t even like going to restaurants that were not de facto segregated.

“We try to go somewhere—how do I say this correctly?—with like-minded individuals. You know. Where it’s not a mixing pot.”

This lack of cultural sensitivity bordering on overt racism is damning enough. But it is a particular problem in Ferguson, Missouri where two-thirds of the community is black but only 11% of the police force. So the people he dealt with, in a community he didn’t live in, just weren’t trying hard enough. Structural unemployment and underemployment along with structural racism was simply no excuse to Officer Wilson. Wilson was the self-appointed avenger of the Protestant ethic: no reward without work no matter what the obstacles and no pleasure, ever. The concepts of meaningful work, quality education, and after-school basketball or music have no meaning for Darren Wilson. And the “disorder” created by those conditions was, in fact, the focus of his policing.

What is particularly sad about this myopia was that Wilson was fully aware of his cultural disconnect with the community. He appealed to another officer he knew for help. But even that appeal had racial and classist overtones: “Mike, I don’t know what I’m doing. This is a culture shock. Would you help me? Because you obviously have that connection, and you can relate to them. You may be white, but they still respect you. So why can they respect you and not me?” It was culture shock. And rather than adapting to the community norms of Ferguson Wilson brought his own values into the community and then tried to impose them by force. It was almost fifty years ago that Robert Blauner described the policing of inner city communities as internal colonialism. He described the police as an invading, occupying army representing a repressive culture and a repressive state (Blauner, 1969). Darren Wilson proves the case.

The issue of police residency is enormous. We see in Wilson’s case that he didn’t understand and in fact disapproved of the community he was assigned to police. He didn’t understand that community politically, culturally or economically. He was so uncomfortable with the environment of the town he was supposed to protect and serve that he lived 20 miles away in a community with was “less of a mixing pot.” In the 75 cities with the largest police forces 60% of officers live outside the cities they are supposed to understand, interact with and protect. In Los Angeles only 23% of officers live in the city. The numbers are even worse elsewhere: 7% in Miami and 12% in Washington D.C. (http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/most-police-dont-live-in-the-cities-they-serve/). This is particularly a problem among white police officers. In Detroit 8% of white police officers live in the city, while 57% of black police officers live there. In New York City, where the majority of police officers do live in the city the racial divide with regard to residency is also easily discerned. In New York 77% of black and 76% of Hispanic officers live in the city, but only 45% of white officers do. Similar huge racial residency disparities are found in Memphis, Tennessee; Baltimore; Birmingham, Alabama; and Jackson, Mississippi.

Second, Wilson was a careerist not a public servant. So, if Darren Wilson didn’t like the people he was policing and felt culturally alienated from them why did he take a job in that community? His answer had nothing to do with serving the community or protecting its people. Wilson’s reasons for going to Ferguson were strictly careerist and very alarming. Wilson says when applying for jobs he centered his search in north St. Louis County, an area with towns having large black populations, severe economic problems, poverty and more arrests than the predominantly white and economically privileged town where he was raised. Clearly, from his own words he was uncomfortable in that environment, if not outright hostile to it. Wilson made this decision based strictly on a plan to advance his own career. Working in an area where he could make a lot of arrests and in which he would be perceived as tough would be good for his future prospects:

“If you go there and you do three to five years, get your experience, you can kind of write your own ticket.”

Darren Wilson was not interested in serving the community; he was interested in serving himself and advancing his career in an occupation which puts a high value on toughness and compulsive masculinity.

Wilson certainly had the credentials for bringing tough policing to Ferguson. He had experience in Jennings, Missouri, a town with a well-deserved reputation for racist policing. In describing the Jennings police he said they “did not play … Basically, they’d beat you.” Despite all of that Wilson told The New Yorker that the pervasive complaints of brutality and racism in that department didn’t make much of an impression on him. In fact, when he was asked if the overt racism of the police was used as an excuse by young people he replied, “I think so.”

Wilson’s careerist orientation demonstrates another cancer in American policing. Careers are advanced by arrests, no matter how petty or unnecessary. Toughness is more valued than discretion and common sense. Training is abysmal emphasizing violence and confrontation over de-escalation and community service. According to the Police Executive Research Forum average police training curricula in the United States spends 58 hours on firearms, 49 hours on defensive tactics, 24 hours on use-of-force training scenarios, 8 hours on use-of-force policy, 8 hours on effectively wielding a baton and 6 hours on the use of chemical weapons as a means of control. That’s 153 hours on the creative use of violence. It is obvious that when you train people for violence they are likely to do just that. On the other hand, those same training programs spend only 8 hours on de-escalation and crisis intervention. When officers receive ten times more training on force than on creating situations that avoid the use of force the outcome is highly predictable.

Added to the heavy-handed emphasis on force in police training is the simple fact that those in that training are not sufficiently educated or experienced to be given a badge, a gun, and almost limitless power. 83% of U.S. police departments require only high school graduation. Only 8% of departments require a 4-year college degree. Police recruits have not been exposed to different ideas, critical thinking skills, or cultural differences in society. In fact, they know next to nothing about the world they are being given the power to control.

Third, Darren Wilson understood the corrosive role of police authoritarianism and the corrosive nature of over criminalization, but he played the game anyway. In commenting on police authority he said,

“Everyone is so quick to jump on race. It’s not a race issue … There are people who feel that police have too much power, and they don’t like it. There are people who feel police don’t have enough power, and they don’t like it.”

So, he recognized that the issue wasn’t crime or disorder, the issue was too many petty laws and the exercise of authoritarian social control measures. In Ferguson police officers were expected to write tickets, many tickets. The police were encouraged to issue multiple citations for each stop they made. Wilson said “that’s almost abusive of power.” But despite knowing it was abusive he admitted to issuing multiple tickets for a single incident, although he said he usually never cited someone more than three times.

All of this and many other considerations led to the police shooting death of Michael Brown. How does Wilson feel about that shooting? Everything about him tells us what his response would be. When his son asked him Wilson commented “I said, ‘Well, I had to shoot somebody.’ And he goes, ‘Well, why did you shoot him? Was he a bad guy?’ I said, ‘Yeah, he was a bad guy.’ ” And how did he feel about Michael Brown?

“Do I think about who he was as a person? Not really, because it doesn’t matter at this point. Do I think he had the best upbringing? No. Not at all.”

Darren Wilson lives an insular world, protected from anything that makes him uncomfortable. He lives in a world that makes him suspicious of people of differing ethnic or cultural backgrounds. He lives a world in which he was taught to be even more removed from the reality of daily life in America by police training curricula which emphasize violence and offers little or no understanding of the people that violence is directed at. From his own words it is clear that Darren Wilson is an implicit and explicit racist who fully embraces the idea that his comfort and well-being is more important than the welfare of those he should be co-existing with. The New Yorker profile of Darren Wilson is a damning indictment of one police officer and American policing in general.


Blauner, R. 1969. Internal Colonialism and Ghetto Revolt. Social Problems 16, 4: 393-408.

Halpern, J. 2015. The Cop. The New Yorker. August 10: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/10/the-cop

Silver, N. 2014. Most Police Don’t Live in the Cities They Serve, Five Thirty-Eight, August 20: http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/most-police-dont-live-in-the-cities-they-serve/

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