Almost one year ago, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed in the middle of a Ferguson, Missouri, street by a police officer who claimed he acted in self-defense when the teen tried to take his service pistol. The event set off a firestorm of protests, which were only fueled when the now former officer, Darren Wilson, was not indicted by a grand jury.
Wilson has remained – as much as possible – out of the public eye since the deadly shooting, but recently opened up in an exclusive interview with Jake Halpern of The New Yorker.
The discussion between the infamous cop and the journalist covered a variety of topics, ranging from Wilson’s less-than-perfect childhood to racism in the police force. Wilson admitted things have not been easy for him and his family – which includes a wife, two step-sons and a 5-month-old baby – since the shooting. The family of five have striven for some sort of normalcy, but it appears to be more of an ideology that may likely never happen – at least not any time soon.
Wilson told Halpern how he ended up working for the Ferguson Police Department.
He began doing construction work straight out of high school, shortly after his mother, who was a compulsively scheming con-artist, died unexpectedly under questionable circumstances. Wilson said at the time he avoided dealing with his mother’s death, which he now believes was a suicide, and started skipping school and hanging out with the wrong crowd. Still, he finished school, but his construction job left him lacking direction and unhappy. Then, in 2008, when the housing market crashed, Wilson was left without a job.
A career in law enforcement would be stable and recession-proof, Wilson thought, so he applied to the police academy and was accepted. Wilson found the training fascinating and soon after graduation landed a job as a police officer patrolling the streets in northern St. Louis County. It was a high-crime area, but it was where Wilson wanted to be.
“If you go there and you do three to five years, get your experience, you can kind of write your own ticket,” he explained.
Then, in 2009, Wilson went to work as a police officer in Jennings, located on the southeast border of Ferguson, where 90 percent of the residents were black and one-fourth live below the poverty line.
“I’d never been in an area where there was that much poverty,” Wilson said, admitting that he not only felt unprepared, but intimidated with his new assignment.
Nonetheless, he said he never felt race was a factor for him.
“I never looked at it like, ‘I’m the only white guy here.’ I just looked at it as ‘This isn’t where I grew up,’” he said.
“When a cop shows up, it’s, like, ‘The cops are here!’ There’s no ‘Oh, shit, the white cops are here!’” He explained. “If you live in a high-crime area, with a lot of poverty, there’s going to be a large police presence. You’re going to piss people off. If police show up, it’s because it’s something bad, and whoever’s involved can’t figure out the problem for themselves.”
Wilson said everyone is so quick to jump on race, but he doesn’t believe that’s the real issue.
“There are people who feel that police have too much power, and they don’t like it. There are people who feel police don’t have enough power, and they don’t like it,” he said.
Furthermore, he recalled a situation he encountered with a woman who was disabled and blind. She had kids running in and out of the house continuously.
“They ran all over the mom. They didn’t respect her, so why would they respect me?” he said. “They’re so wrapped up in a different culture than – what I’m trying to say is, the right culture, the better one to pick from.”
Wilson further elaborated when Halpern pressed him as to what he meant by “a different culture.”
“Pre-gang culture,” he explained, “where you are just running in the streets – not worried about working in the morning, just worried about your immediate gratification.”
He said it’s the same culture seen in inner cities across the country, and essentially, the problem doesn’t simply lie in race, but rather respect – or a lack thereof.
But Wilson’s walk as a police officer in an impoverished area wasn’t an easy one either. In fact, he struggled at first to connect with those he was sworn to protect and serve. It wasn’t until Wilson began training under Mike McCarthy that he really learned to connect with the community.
“He was able to relate to everyone up there,” Wilson said of McCarthy.
Wilson reached out to McCarthy, who in turn, trained him up as best he could. McCarthy said he wasn’t surprised by Wilson’s request for help either, citing the lack of discussion on communication and connecting with the community at the police academy.
But nonetheless, McCarthy said, “Darren was probably the best officer that I’ve ever trained – just by his willingness to learn.”
Eventually, Wilson learned to loosen up, joke with the residents, even curse occasionally. McCarthy said there is so much distrust with the African-American community toward the police, that the only real way to overcome it is by building bonds with the people of the community. McCarthy, who is gay, said he understood what it meant to feel marginalized when everyone is supposed to be equal.
Eventually, both Wilson and McCarthy were laid off when the police department was shut down following a vote by the City Council and a great deal of scandals.
But when Wilson left Jennings, he said he “didn’t want to work in a white area,” and that he enjoyed working in the black community.
“I had fun there,” he said. “There’s people who will just crack you up.”
In addition, in a place like Jennings, officers kept busy.
“I didn’t want to just sit around all day,” Wilson said.
He wanted to answer calls and meet people, and that’s something he was able to do when he took the job in Ferguson. But about a year into his employment, he began to see problems with the department.
Wilson recalled an incident in which a rookie cop responded to a call about a woman standing in the street screaming. By the time Wilson arrived on the scene, the responding officer had the lady on the ground and in handcuffs, but it turned out she was having some sort of anxiety attack and simply needed help.
He was like, “Now what?” to the other officer.
“You don’t even know why you arrested somebody?” Wilson said of the situation, but later learned the officer who trained the rookie was known for his “arrest them and figure it out later” approach, as Wilson called it.
“He didn’t learn how to talk,” Wilson said, referring to the rookie.
Wilson pointed to other problems with the department as well. He said officers would often find themselves being punished if they failed to write enough tickets, so many officers would issue multiple citations during a traffic stop. He recalled one officer dishing out sixteen citations in a single stop.
“What the hell is the point?” Wilson said, noting that such strategies often only created more problems by feeding a “vicious cycle” where people often couldn’t pay the fines, then were additionally fined for falling behind on payments, eventually leading to a sort of hopeless debt.
“That’s almost abusive of power,” he said, nothing that he typically wouldn’t write any more than three citations in a single stop.
Wilson continued to endure ups and downs in the department, rolling with the punches, so to say, but on the afternoon of Aug. 9, 2014, everything changed.
Wilson had just responded to a call about a mother with an infant who was having difficulty breathing and was on his way to meet Barb for lunch when there was a call over the radio about a “stealing in progress.” A description of the suspects was broadcasted, but the dispatcher said the subjects had disappeared, so Wilson continued on with his lunch plans.
But as he was driving, he saw Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson walking down the middle of the street.
Brown’s father, Michael Brown, Sr., said he had just previously talked with his son about encounters with the police.
“We had a conversation about just following orders,” Brown, Sr. said.
He said he explained to his son that if he ever thought he was being disrespected, he should get a name and badge number and take the appropriate action, but he also told his son the most important thing he could do when dealing with the police is to simply “obey.”
Wilson said he shouted out of his window for the teens to use the sidewalk, to which, according to Wilson, Brown replied with, “Fuck what you have to say,” although Johnson disputed that and said Wilson told them to, “Get the fuck on the sidewalk.”
Based on the description given by dispatch and the fact that Brown still had the stolen cigarillos in his hand, Wilson determined the teens were likely the theft suspects. So Wilson parked his patrol vehicle at an angle, a common practice for law enforcement officials to provide protection should a gunfight erupt.
According to Wilson’s account, he then attempted to open his door, but Brown pushed the door back. Words were exchanged between the two, although – despite Halpern urging him to talk – Wilson refused to elaborate, citing an ongoing civil suit with Brown’s parents and fear that anything “in print that they’re going to try and spin.”
The details of what transpired at that point have been the source of great controversy for the last year, but according to what the Justice Department deemed as several credible witnesses, Brown then – for an unknown reason – grabbed Wilson and punched him in the face.
As Wilson struggled with Brown, he told investigators he reviewed his options, which included the use of mace, a retractable baton or his gun, which he said was the most readily accessible. Wilson said he unholstered his gun and as he did this, Brown reached for it and said, “You are too much of a pussy to shoot me.”
The struggle continued and Brown was shot in the hand – the first time Wilson had ever fired his weapon in the line of duty.
Brown had the “the most intense, aggressive face” and looked “like a demon” Wilson said. The clerk at the store where Brown had taken the cigarillos used a similar description for the teen when he was confronted.
Brown began to flee, running nearly 200 feet, with Wilson giving chase. But then, again for an unknown reason, Brown stopped and turned back toward Wilson and started to come straight at him. Wilson said he ordered Brown to stop, but he refused and continued to come at him. And when Brown made a motion as if he was reaching for his waistband, Wilson opened fire.
Brown was struck several times and Wilson later told the grand jury that he “looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.”
Brown was pronounced dead at the scene, and his body lay in the street for four hours while crime scene investigators went to work – which proved to be another source of controversy.
It wasn’t until later that Barb learned why her husband missed their lunch date.
“Neither one of us knew what the reaction was going to be the next day,” Wilson said. “You know, a typical police shooting is: you get about a week to a week and a half off, you see a shrink, you go through your Internal Affairs interviews. And then you come back.”
“I didn’t think it would be a big weight on his shoulders,” Barb, who is also a police officer, added. “This is kind of what we signed up for.”
But neither of them were prepared for what would follow.
Barb said they turned on the television later that night and saw images of Ferguson.
“We stayed up all night watching, like, ‘Oh, my God – what’s going on? What are they doing?’” she said.
The couple contemplated leaving the area, afraid their address would be leaked.
Wilson was cleared of any wrongdoing in Brown’s death on Nov. 24, 2014, and the civil unrest and rioting was rekindled – both in Ferguson and other cities across the country.
Nonetheless, Wilson wanted to go back to work with the Ferguson Police Department once the investigation was closed, but he was forced to resign. He said he was told his presence would put other officers’ lives at risk.
“They put that on me,” he said.
He’s tried to get in with other police departments as well, but all flag him as a liability.
“It’s too hot an issue,” he said, “So it makes me unemployable.”
Wilson even tried to get non-law enforcement jobs, but they too fall apart. He said he once worked at a boot store for two weeks, until phone calls starting coming in from reporters.
“No matter what I do, they try to get a story off of it,” he said.
In addition, Wilson has continuously received death threats over the last year as well, but they aren’t just limited to harming him. Wilson’s wife, Barb, was pregnant when the shooting occurred and he said people “made threats about doing something to my unborn child.” In fact, when the couple went to the hospital for the baby’s birth, Barb checked in anonymously.
The couple said they rarely do simple things anymore, like go out to dinner. And when Halpern arrived at his home – which does not have his name on the deed and only a few, select people know where it’s at – Wilson met him on the sidewalk wearing a hat and sunglasses. Wilson had already been alerted of the journalist’s arrival through a high-tech surveillance system synced with his cell phone.
But Wilson said he’s not going to keep living in the past about what Ferguson did.
“It’s out of my control,” he said.
And when Halpern asked Wilson if he thought Brown was a “bad guy” or just a kid who found himself in a bad situation, he replied, “I only knew him for those 45 seconds in which he was trying to kill me, so I don’t know.”