I had a sort of epiphany today. The chess match in Ferguson is, believe it or not, already over. It’s mate in two, and the next moves are mostly ceremonial. Take a knight, move a pawn – the game is up.
Here’s what I mean: the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri have marked the end of an era when it comes to segregation, poverty, and the role of the police. They will be forever changed in Ferguson, St. Louis, and likely all of America.
We are currently perched on the edge of our seats waiting to hear what this one institution, the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office, will do in response to the actions of an officer in another institution, the Ferguson Police Department. In a sense, the case of Darren Wilson is symbolic. There is another, more critical force that will be impossible to blunt.
You have to understand, St Louis is unique because of its municipal structure. This place is split into 100 different cities with their own tax bases, schools, police, and sometimes electrical grids: St Louis City, naturally – and then Clayton, Brentwood, Pine Lawn, Florissant, Ferguson, Ladue, Creve Coeur, and so forth. They all vary massively in terms of wealth and well-being. This situation has a long, complex history, and it is more than incidentally related to the decades of policies such as housing covenants to exclude minorities. The Supreme Court case on school desegregation wasn’t in this town for nothing. They had laws against black people buying houses in certain neighborhoods. That needed the Supreme Court’s help as well.
History not withstanding, that’s the status in 2014: a metropolitan area of around 2.8 million people cut into chunks of 15,000 or so. This is one reason that economic inequity is so sharp here – infrastructure here varies wildly with the income of your residents.
It’s also why the relationship between police and African Americans may change permanently.
You see, criminal cases against police are notoriously difficult for a variety of reasons. But civil suits are another matter. Liability has a very different standard of evidence than criminality. Now, imagine how many civil suits have already been filed against the tiny City of Ferguson and the Ferguson Police. I’ve already seen reports of protestors filing suits for brutality, wrongful arrest, civil rights violations, and more. I would be shocked if the family of Mike Brown didn’t file a wrongful death suit. The ACLU is all over this – I imagine there are suits and amicus briefs flying all over the judicial landscape.
Ferguson has an annual town budget of around $20,000,000 – and they have recently been in the red ink to the tune of a couple million per year, mostly due to infrastructure investments. They already pay around $3 million a year in debt service. They raised a $9 million bond in 2013, and Moody’s rates them A1, which is quite good. But do you know how much it will cost to defend against these lawsuits? Hundreds of thousands. Millions. Can you imagine how long it will take for these cases to be heard? Years and years – all requiring defense attorneys galore.
That’s just from August. You don’t think that we’re going to get out of this Grand Jury decision without additional “issues,” do you? Those 1,000 cops aren’t here for nothing. Chances of there not being a few extra lawsuits after this are the same as your ability to pole vault over the Pentagon using chopsticks.
Most liability insurance policies have a maximum, and while I’m not certain, I would bet that a city of 21,000 people doesn’t have a limitless policy from Lloyd’s of London. From defense alone, never mind potential damage awards, you might see the city of Ferguson sent into bankruptcy. This system of small cities is simply not designed to handle the implications of global events.
Moreover, these will be some of the first police brutality cases to feature considerable videographic evidence from all those camera phones. They will establish many precedents that could likely serve as the basis of future cases all over America. What happens in Ferguson may likely change the laws around police accountability from coast to coast. It will not happen overnight – but these forces are inexorable and in motion. I think that this is the end of an era – and one that needed ending.
We are living through history. Let us then be equal to the moment and offer all of our fellow citizens the maximum of kindness and respect. That includes our government officials and the members of our law enforcement agencies, all who are trying to operate in a very old system that none of them designed. We are all struggling to understand and honor an uncertain future. Let us make the best of it.