The family of an unarmed black teenager fatally shot during a police encounter by a white officer has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the officer and the town’s former chief of police.
Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. filed the wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Ferguson, Mo., as well as former police chief Thomas Jackson and former police officer Darren Wilson in connection with the fatal shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. last August.
The shooting of the teenager, who was black, by the white police officer prompted a nationwide call for police reform and triggered dual investigations at the state and federal level. Wilson was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by a locally empaneled grand jury three months after the shooting and was cleared of any civil rights violations following the conclusion of a U.S. Department of Justice probe last month.
Brown’s parents see things a different way: In the lawsuit filed on Thursday, McSpadden and Brown say Wilson’s repeated use of profane language during the August encounter with their son “set the stage for an aggressive encounter” that otherwise “would have been uneventful.”
“Defendant Wilson’s aggressive, disrespectful and profane language escalated this encounter into an event that has garnered worldwide attention,” the lawsuit says.
A law professor told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper that the lawsuit was “well-drafted,” but that the Brown family might have difficulty proving that Wilson used “objectively unreasonable force” during the encounter. To do that, another officer would likely need to testify that they would have handled the situation differently.
Additionally, Brown’s family will need to prove that the chief of police and the city inadequately trained officers for citizen encounters, and that poor training led Wilson to escalate the situation to the point of deadly force.
“It’s a tough standard to meet in terms of a legal equation,” St. Louis University law professor Marcia McCormick told the Post-Dispatch. But McCormick said what might work in favor of the Brown family is that the standard of proof in a civil case is lesser than that of a criminal case.
The Brown killing set the stage for a national movement calling for an end to what activists say is excessive use of force by police against unarmed suspects, notably minorities. The movement has been fueled by recent incidents in New York, South Carolina and Ohio of white police officers killing unarmed black men and children.
But unlike other incidents of officer-civilian encounters — all of which were captured on video — the Brown killing has always been shrouded in a cloud of mystery. Exactly what happened that day remains known only to the now-deceased Brown and former officer Wilson, who has since removed himself from the public eye. The lack of indisputable evidence from the encounter, such as a video recording of the actual shooting, has divided the public’s opinion between those who believe the officer unfoundedly shot an unarmed black man and those who believed Wilson shot Brown because the officer was attacked, as has been the narrative by Ferguson officials and Wilson himself.
Activists faced dual setbacks when a grand jury empaneled in St. Louis County and a federal investigation both failed to blame Wilson for any wrongdoing in the shooting. Assertions of widespread racism and profiling by the Ferguson Police Department were affirmed, though, when the Department of Justice found that officers and city officials had unfairly targeted black citizens for traffic tickets, arrestable offenses and fines covering a span of several years. The report led to the firings and resignations of several city officials, including police chief Jackson.
The Brown family used passages from the Department of Justice’s report in their lawsuit filed on Thursday. The family is seeking unspecified damages as restitution over the killing.