ST. LOUIS — News that Michael Brown was wanted as a robbery suspect could put a fresh light on his killing by a Ferguson police officer, a use-of-force expert said Friday.
“A police officer making a stop of just a couple of guys walking down the street is very different from an officer stopping a couple of guys who just committed a robbery,” said David Klinger, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.
The circumstances faced by Officer Darren Wilson contained both elements, according to a description Friday by Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson.
He said Wilson was aware there had been a robbery involving cigars but did not realize when he ordered two young men to stop walking in the street that they were suspects. Wilson made the connection when he noticed cigars in Brown’s hand, Jackson said.
The chief released some police reports and surveillance pictures Friday in revealing that Brown, 18, had been involved in the store robbery and roughed up a clerk. Police said Wilson shot Brown, who was unarmed, after a struggle at another location. The shooting remains under investigation by the St. Louis County police and the FBI.
The shooting spurred nights of protests — some violent — and cries for justice from Brown’s family and others who have accused police of murdering a man who posed no threat.
Dorian Johnson, 22, has claimed to reporters that he and Brown were walking together in the middle of a street when the officer pulled up and ordered them to get on the sidewalk. Johnson said Brown did not attack the officer or struggle for his gun, and was shot with his hands up, surrendering.
In news interviews, Johnson did not mention the robbery. But after the release of the police reports, his lawyer, Freeman R. Bosley Jr., said Johnson did tell federal and local investigators that both men had been in the store and that Brown “did take cigarillos.”
Jackson said Johnson would not be charged because police believe “he didn’t steal anything or use force.”
Lethal force is guided by a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court case that says police may kill a violent felon who poses a risk to an officer or other people, Klinger explained this week. He said lessons from that case are taught to police around the country.
Klinger said not enough information has been revealed to judge whether the shooting was justified, but he said the known information could explain Wilson’s heightened alert.
An officer dealing with a potential felon, he said, is “allowed to use a different approach. I know I have probable cause to detain that individual,” he said, and can use the force necessary.
Klinger has firsthand experience. In 1981, when he was a Los Angeles police officer, he killed a man who attacked his partner.
He described the reactions of an officer confronting a robbery suspect. “We spot this individual. Basically, what police doctrine holds is that we’re going to exit our vehicle with guns drawn,” he said. He noted that the level of force the officer presents increases with the seriousness of the crime.
“Now you don’t get to shoot the person, but you enter into it at a much more severe, shall we say, posture of force.”
“And also, if you’re fighting with someone you suspect might have been involved in a robbery, your concern about what they may do is much greater than someone you suspect of jaywalking.”