The family of Michael Brown, shot to death by a Ferguson police officer, will file a wrongful death lawsuit, lawyers announced on Thursday, a day after the Department of Justice said it would not bring criminal charges against the officer.
At a morning news conference, lawyers for the Brown family said a civil suit has a lower standard of proof than a criminal civil rights charge. The city of Ferguson is likely to be named in the suit, along with now-former police officer Darren Wilson, who shot the 18-year-old, unarmed Brown on Aug. 9.
“Obviously Ferguson will be one of the defendants and the officer, without question since he is the perpetrator,” said Daryl D. Parks, one of the family’s attorneys. “He did not have to kill Michael Brown.”
Neither of Brown’s parents, Lesley McSpadden or Michael Brown Sr., spoke at the news conference because they will be litigants in the civil suit, said Parks and fellow attorney Anthony Gray.
“It was a tough day for the family,” Parks said.
Both lawyers said the family was unhappy with the Deparment of Justice report that said there were no credible witnesses to rebut Wilson's contention that he shot Brown because he feared for his safety.
While Justice Department investigators said there was no proof that Wilson overstepped his authority as a police officer, the family lawyers emphasized that a civil suit has a different and lower standard of proof.
“It’s the same evidence in our case,” said Gray, “but we hope to present a clearer picture.”
On Aug. 9, Wilson, who is white, confronted Brown, who was black, as he was walking with a friend in the street. Wilson scuffled with Brown, who was reaching through the window of the police cruiser toward the officer, according to testimony presented to a St. Louis grand jury, which did not charge Wilson in the shooting.
A single shot was fired from Wilson’s gun, hitting Brown in the hand.
Brown then fled and Wilson pursued. Brown turned and Wilson fired 12 shots at Brown, hitting him at least six times, according to Wilson’s account to authorities.
In the second of two reports released on Wednesday, the Department of Justice condemned the Ferguson police department as a profit-driven operation that engaged in a pattern of racist actions against African Americans. Police routinely issued tickets, mostly to black drivers, to raise municipal revenue and used what federal investigators said was excessive force for minor offenses.
When Ferguson police made arrests for jaywalking, the suspect was almost always African American, according to the federal report, which found that 95% of those charged with violating a municipal jaywalking ordinance are black.
The Justice Department also cited a series of racist emails from police department employees, including one that compared President Obama to a chimpanzee.
At his news conference announcing the reports, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said Wednesday that the department “found a community that was deeply polarized; a community where deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents.”
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said steps were already being taken to correct problems and that one of the employees involved in exchanging the racist emails had been fired and two others had been put on administrative leave pending further investigation.
“We must do better not only as a city, but as a state and a country,” Knowles said.
But Knowles’ comments failed to appease Ferguson activists. Protesters had filled the streets in August after the shooting and again in November when the grand jury decided not to charge Wilson, who then resigned from the police force.
On Wednesday night, about 60 protesters moved from the street to the front of the police department without any major clashes with officers. Then about 20 officers in riot gear emerged from the station.
Margaret Morrow, 67, a retired autoworker from St. Louis, said she braved the cold to protest because the Justice Department “failed us.”
“I want them to get rid of everybody in the police department,” Morrow, who is African American, said as she stood across the street from the crowd with Cathy Jackson, 62, a retired bus driver, who is white.
“I don't understand,” Jackson said, “how the DOJ can say this is a racist department, they were racially profiling, but on the day Michael Brown was shot, that officer didn't violate his civil rights.”
Jackson, who wore gloves labeled “Don't Shoot” and a hat that said “no justice yet” said she also blamed the mayor. Disciplining a handful employees for a culture that appears pervasive isn't enough, she said.
“If he didn't know, he should have. That's his job. He needs to go. These low-level people they're getting rid of are scapegoats,” she said.
Jennifer McCoy, an attorney and activist from University City, Mo., said she was among four female protesters who were arrested overnight by Ferguson police.
McCoy, 48, said she was charged with failure to comply and failure to disperse and released on $300 bond, with a court date scheduled for April 16.
“I couldn't believe the Ferguson police would continue to arrest peaceful protesters in light of a scathing report highlighting just that,” she said, “It seemed to me this would be an opportunity for community-building. They don't see it as an opportunity. They see it as a challenge to their authority. And that's precisely why were still out there, to challenge that mentality.”
Staff writers Hennessey-Fiske reported from Ferguson and Muskal from Los Angeles.
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