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updated: 8/23/2014 10:10 PM

Records shed some light on officer in Ferguson shooting

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  • Sondra Fifer, of St. Louis, voices her disagreement with the rally Saturday for Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, at Barney's Sports Pub in St. Louis. "I'm not against officers, I'm against police brutality," Fifer said. Ferguson's streets remained peaceful, though, as tensions between police and protesters continued to subside.

      Sondra Fifer, of St. Louis, voices her disagreement with the rally Saturday for Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, at Barney's Sports Pub in St. Louis. "I'm not against officers, I'm against police brutality," Fifer said. Ferguson's streets remained peaceful, though, as tensions between police and protesters continued to subside.
    Associated Press/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

 
By Carol D. Leonnig, Kimberly Kindy and Joel Achenbach
The Washington Post

FERGUSON, Mo. -- The small city of Jennings, Missouri had a police department so troubled, and with so much tension between white officers and black residents, that the city council finally decided to disband it. Everyone in the Jennings police department was fired. New officers were brought in to create a credible department from scratch.

That was three years ago. One of the officers who worked in that department, and lost his job along with everyone else, was a young man named Darren Wilson.

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Some of the Jennings officers reapplied for their jobs, but Wilson got a job in the police department in the nearby city of Ferguson.

On Aug. 9, Wilson, who is white, killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown after Brown and a friend had been walking down the middle of a street.

Wilson, 28, has completely vanished from public view. He has not explained publicly what happened in that brief, lethal encounter.

His lawyer did not answer phone calls or emails. The police union is mum.

His ex-wife is publicly silent. His friends aren't speaking out.

His mother is long deceased, and there is no sign of his father or either of his former stepfathers.

Wilson is under the protection of the Ferguson Police Department, which has chosen from the beginning of this case to opt for obscurity rather than transparency. The department did not reveal Wilson's identity for nearly a week after the fatal shooting of Brown. By that time, his social media accounts had been suspended.

But everyone leaves a record, and Darren Dean Wilson is no exception.

People who know him describe him as someone who grew up in a home marked by multiple divorces and tangles with the law. His mother died when he was in high school. A friend said a career in law enforcement offered him structure in what had been a chaotic life.

What he found in Jennings, however, was a mainly white department mired in controversy and notorious for its fraught relationship with residents, especially the African American majority. It was not an ideal place to learn how to do policing. Officials say Wilson kept a clean record without any disciplinary action.

The job in Ferguson represented a step up and likely a significant salary increase.

Wilson has had some recent personal turmoil: Last year, he petitioned the court seeking a divorce from his wife, Ashley Nicole Wilson, and they formally split in November, records show.

Wilson won a commendation this year after he subdued a man who was found in possession of marijuana, and he was honored in a ceremony in the Town Council chambers.

He seemed to be doing pretty well as a police officer -- until shortly after noon on that Saturday earlier this month when he passed two young black men walking down the middle of the street, put his police cruiser into reverse and said something to them.

Wilson was born in Texas in 1986 to Tonya and John Wilson, and he had a sister, Kara. His parents divorced in 1989, when he was 2 or 3 years old.

His mother remarried Tyler Harris, and they lived in Elgin, Texas, for a time, records show. Tyler and Tonya Harris had another child, Jared.

The family later moved to the Missouri suburban town of St. Peters, where Wilson's mother again got divorced and married a man named Dan Durso, records indicate.

Wilson attended St. Charles West High School, in a predominantly white, middle-class community west of the Missouri River. He played junior varsity hockey for the West Warriors but wasn't a standout.

There were problems at home. In 2001, when Wilson was a freshman in high school, his mother pleaded guilty to forgery and stealing. She was sentenced to five years in prison, although records suggest the court agreed to let her serve her sentence on probation.

She died of natural causes in November 2002, when Wilson was 16, records show. His stepfather, Tyler Harris, took over as his limited guardian, which ended when the boy turned 18.

A family friend, who spoke on the condition anonymity out of fear of threats, said Wilson sought out a career in law enforcement as a way to create a solid foundation in his life that he'd been missing.

"He had a rough upbringing and just wanted to help people," the friend said. In Wilson's childhood, "there was just no structure."

After going through the police academy, Wilson landed a job in 2009 as a rookie officer in Jennings, a small, struggling city of 14,000 where 89 percent of the residents were African American and poverty rates were high. At the time, the 45-employee police unit had one or two black members on the force, said Allan Stichnote, a white Jennings City Council member.

Racial tension was endemic in Jennings, said Rodney Epps, an African American city council member.

"You're dealing with white cops, and they don't know how to address black people," Epps said. "The straw that broke the camel's back, an officer shot at a female. She was stopped for a traffic violation. She had a child in the back [of the] car and was probably worried about getting locked up. And this officer chased her down Highway 70, past city limits, and took a shot at her. Just ridiculous."

Police faced a series of lawsuits for using unnecessary force, Stichnote said. One black resident, Cassandra Fuller, sued the department claiming a white Jennings police officer beat her in June 2009 on her own porch after she made a joke. A car had smashed into her van, which was parked in front of her home, and she called police. The responding officer asked her to move the van. "It don't run. You can take it home with you if you want," she answered. She said the officer became enraged, threw her off the porch, knocked her to the ground and kicked her in the stomach.

The department paid Fuller a confidential sum to settle the case, she said.

"It's like a horror story in my mind. I never thought a police officer would pull me off my porch and beat me to the ground, for just laughing," Fuller said in an interview.

The Jennings department also had a corruption problem. A joint federal and local investigation discovered that a lieutenant had been accepting federal funds for drunken-driving checks that never happened.

All the problems became too much for the city council to bear, and in March 2011 the council voted 6-to-1 to shut down the department and hire St. Louis County to run its police services, putting Lt. Jeff Fuesting in charge as commander.

Fuesting, who overlapped for about four months with Wilson during a transitional period, described him as "an average officer."

"My impression is he didn't go above and beyond, and he didn't get in any trouble," Fuesting said.

He said of the department during its difficult period: "There was a disconnect between the community and the police department. There were just too many instances of police tactics which put the credibility of the police department in jeopardy. Complaints against officers. There was a communication breakdown between the police and the community. There were allegations involving use of force that raised questions."

Robert Orr, the former Jennings police chief who retired in 2010, said of Wilson, "He was a good officer with us. There was no disciplinary action."

The structure of policing in these small St. Louis communities, as in many places in the United States, is innately combustible.

Officers rarely stay in the same police force for a long time, much less for an entire career. This means police and residents are typically strangers to one another -- and not simply from different social, ethnic or racial backgrounds.

Ferguson is an example of a police department staffed predominantly with white officers, many of whom who live far away from, and often fail to establish trust with, the predominantly black communities they serve. Policing can become a tense, racially charged, fearful and potentially violent series of interactions. Distrust becomes institutionalized, as much a part of the local infrastructure as the sewers and power lines.

A newly released report by a nonprofit group of lawyers identifies Ferguson as a city that gets much of its revenue from fines generated by police in mundane citations against residents -- what the group calls a poor-people's tax.

The civil unrest that followed the shooting of Michael Brown suggests a deeper problem with the city's police department, said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor of criminology who has studied police shootings for decades.

"In order for a police department to weather a storm like that, it has to have social capital. And this police department didn't have social capital in that community," he said.

The Ferguson shooting became a national story in part because of what happened in the days afterward, when the country witnessed street protesters chanting "hands up, don't shoot" as they faced heavily militarized police units in armored personnel carriers. The images shocked Americans across the ideological spectrum and prompted President Barack Obama to order a review of federal programs that supply military weaponry to police departments.

The protests have grown smaller, and the looting and street violence that flared late at night have subsided, and so the community is renewing its focus on the original Aug. 9 incident, and to the question of how the criminal justice system will handle Wilson's use of deadly force -- six bullets fired in a matter of seconds -- against 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Behind closed doors, meeting once a week, a grand jury has been hearing evidence related to the death of Brown from St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch. He has said he does not expect the grand jury to finish its deliberations until October.

Meanwhile, the FBI is interviewing witnesses as part of a Justice Department investigation that could potentially lead separately to federal civil rights charges.

There are two competing narratives about what happened Aug. 9.

Dorian Johnson, 22, was walking with Brown when, he said, Wilson instigated a confrontation by pulling up to the pair in his police cruiser and telling them to get out of the middle of the street. Johnson said Wilson pulled up so close to Brown that when he opened his car door, it bumped into the teenager.

According to Johnson, Wilson reached out, grabbed Brown by the throat and then grabbed his shirt as Brown tried to move away. At that point, Johnson said, he saw Wilson pull out a gun and shoot Brown in the chest or arm. Johnson said the officer hit Brown with another round as he was running away and fatally gunned him down after he stopped and raised his hands in surrender.

The police have given few details of what happened, but Thomas Jackson, the Ferguson police chief, said in a news briefing that the side of Wilson's face was swollen and he was treated at a hospital.

The Ferguson Police Department quickly ceded the investigation to the St. Louis County police. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said Brown "allegedly pushed" Wilson back into the car and physically assaulted Wilson. There was a struggle over Wilson's gun, which was fired once inside the car, Belmar said. The only person to fire the gun was Wilson, he said.

Autopsies showed Brown was shot six times.

The Ferguson police report about the incident says it began at 12:02 p.m. and that Wilson called it in at 12:43 p.m. The body remained in the street for four hours.

Experts on police shootings say the investigation, including the grand jury deliberations, will focus on whether Wilson had a reasonable perception of being threatened with bodily harm. The experts say it does not matter how many bullets Wilson fired. Police are trained to shoot at the center of mass and stop the threat.

"If it's an imminent threat of serious bodily harm, yeah, you become the judge, jury and executioner," said Alpert, the University of South Carolina criminologist.

Richard Rosenfeld, a University of Missouri at St. Louis professor of criminology, adds, "It's not simply that the officer perceives that he or she is under threat. It must be that the perception is reasonable. That term 'reasonable' is so legally freighted."

Many African Americans here have little trust that the system is capable of reaching a fair decision. McCulloch, the prosecutor, is particularly controversial. His father was a police officer killed by a black man in 1964. He has resisted calls to recuse himself from the case.

"Why is it always in the African American community that it must be the victim's fault if he got killed?" said Charlie Dooley, the county executive of St. Louis County and someone who has called for McCulloch to give way in favor of a special prosecutor. "That is just not right, and it's not equal justice. African Americans are saying, 'How dare you? We're fed up with that. We fought for this country, too.' "

Dooley continued: "This is bigger than Mike Brown. What happened in those few seconds on Canfield is illustrative of how little value black men's lives are worth. The message is clear: Police can kill a young black man and get away with it."

On Saturday, Wilson supporters staged a "Support Darren Wilson" rally at Barney's Sports Pub, which is frequented by current and former officers.

"The people here don't know him, but law enforcement is family," said Rhea Rodebaugh, the bar's owner and a former sheriff. "The poor guy is in hiding. He was doing his job."

About 100 people, most of them white, showed up. A table held stacks of navy blue T-shirts for sale, each with a police badge on the front and the words "Officer Darren Wilson We Stand By You 8-9-14."

Several in the crowd had connections to law enforcement, including one who said he knew Wilson from working in private security -- and got a call from him on the night of Aug. 9. He said Wilson called to say he couldn't make it to work because of the shooting.

"Really surprised me that he would think to notify somebody to cover a position that he was responsible for after being involved in what he was involved in," the officer said.

The officers voiced their unhappiness with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who called for a "speedy prosecution" in the case, a comment that his office later attempted to retract, saying he meant a "speedy investigation." The cops said they aren't buying it since it was from a prepared statement, and they worry about the effect it may have on the community if Wilson is not prosecuted.

"That just sets us up for riots," said one of the officers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety.

Shortly after noon, a woman wearing a baseball cap, aviator sunglasses and blue nail polish stood before a crowd of reporters. She would not give her name. She read from a prepared statement saying Wilson had the group's "unwavering support."

"We will not hide," she said. "We will no longer live in fear."

When someone asked if she would remove her sunglasses before the statement began, the woman shook her head no. She blasted media coverage of the case, calling out "unethical, poor journalism."

"You want my name?" she said. "My name is Darren Wilson. We are Darren Wilson."

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