The moment Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson shot an unarmed teenager, a 25-year-old Supreme Court case became the prism through which his actions will be legally judged.
To most people, an 18-year-old unarmed man may not appear to pose a deadly threat. But a police officer’s perspective is different. And that is how an officer should be judged after the fact, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the 1989 opinion.
The Supreme Court case, decided at a time when violence against police was on the rise, has shaped the national legal standards that govern when police officers are justified in using force. The key question about Wilson’s killing on Aug. 9 is whether a reasonable officer with a similar background would have responded the same way.
The sequence of events that led to the death of Michael Brown, a black man shot by a white officer, remains unclear. An autopsy paid for by Brown’s family concluded that he was shot six times, twice in the head. The shooting has prompted multiple investigations and touched off days of rioting reflecting long-simmering racial tensions in a town of mostly black residents and a majority white police force.
Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday the episode had opened a national conversation about “the appropriate use of force and the need to ensure fair and equal treatment for everyone who comes into contact with the police.”