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Unveiling Ethics In Ferguson

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Daphney Dupervil
June 29, 2018

The shooting of Michael Brown took place on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, a northern suburb of St. Louis. Brown, an 18-year-old African-American male, was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old Caucasian male. The shooting of Brown is not an isolated incident. It mimics a similar pattern of excessive/lethal force that has been noted throughout the United States.

The element of ethical justice must be examined in this case alongside what lead to the altercation, how it was handled by all parties and how the media portrayed it. It is not about indicting Wilson; rather, it is about justice for community members, and preventing similar incidents from occurring. This paper aims to examine this case through Ben Spielberg’s ethical viewpoints.

Viewpoint A is privilege-defending and assumes that police always behave responsibly because of their authority. If the authority of Wilson as an officer is removed and the case is examined on a civilian level, Brown would be excluded from being responsible for his death. Once the layer of authority is added, it discredits Brown and all witnesses. Police business is not simply conducted at headquarters–Anywhere police go becomes their workplace and is thereby subjected to their authority. “Use-of-force” policies are also subjective to that authority. Under our current legal system, there are state and departmental policies which govern what is a permissible homicide based on the officers need to protect their life or another’s or if they needed to procure a fleeing suspect. This is all governed by perceived danger and subjective to the officer’s authority.

Viewpoint B is partially privilege-defending and shifts some of the blame on the victim while also struggling to identify the true victim, and is pervasively prejudice towards groups who typically have low bargain rights both politically and socially.Viewpoint B examines community perceptions about the police and police perception about the community they are hired to serve. Thus, Brown was already a suspect even before meeting Wilson. His death is the price of systemic oppression and sheer “bad luck.” As disheartening as it is to categorize being fatally shot as “bad luck,” it is more, in fact, a question of odds. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Ferguson, Missouri has a population of over 21,000 and majority of its in residents are black. Problematically, the racial makeup of its elected officials and law enforcement are majority white. Viewpoint B is often supported by the media and pushes the narrative that community members are equally responsible for their interaction with law enforcement. This is unethical because of the unbalance of power that exists in Ferguson exemplifies that community members do not have an opportunity to influence authority and cannot benefit from it.

Viewpoint C’s guiding principle is to balance power and that the authoritative power of police makes them responsible for protecting citizens and their actions deserve intense scrutiny when they harm civilians. Harmony among law enforcement and community members is a reciprocal benefit which translates to reduced accounts of excessive and deadly force. When factored into the Brown case, had the Ferguson police department been “perceived” positively by the community, would there be a Brown case or even riots? The riots in particular are a result of the community deciding that the actions of Officer Wilson were not fair. The community did not legitimize his claim that his life was in danger despite Wilson’s “perceived” judgment, which in turn created the response we know as the Ferguson riots. This an ethical concern within the context of institutionalized racism. The ethical dilemma begins outside the control of both the community and the officer who is acting in accordance to their environment–it urges for the ethics of the environment in which officers are being trained and developed in to be examined.

For police, there is the ethical dimension of their work within the workplace as well as the moral dimension of their case-by-case decisions. The moral dilemma is in what police work has become which has moved away from community needs and into political needs. This can be seen in the demographic makeup of the legal and judicial systems in which Ferguson operates under. From local to state government, the response to Brown’s death was muddled with unethical practices and dubious actions had questionable morality and displayed a lack of respect for life. The more evident divide on what is moral and what is ethical continued all the way to the federal level and how their response blurred distinctions of whether Ferguson was a war zone or a community dealing with systemic racism. Ferguson is not simply a case study but a warning to other cities that mirrors its power structure. A lack of ethics and its importance in all levels of government will come at the price of social unrest which cripples the democratic nature intended for government. The failure to examine policing behaviors will continue to exacerbate the negative community perception of law enforcement.


Author: Daphney Dupervil, MPH, MPA [email protected]

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