One year ago this Sunday, a police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old African-American named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In the months since, the shooting has attained almost mythic status. The names of the now former officer, the unarmed teen, and the town where their paths crossed have each become archetypes, representing the persistent tensions that link race and policing in the U.S.
In an upcoming issue of the The New Yorker, journalist Jake Halpern tries to pare Wilson back down to human size. In an expansive profile, Halpern examines Wilson’s childhood, career, and involuntary retirement.
Wilson was twice cleared of criminal wrongdoing in Brown’s death – first by a Ferguson grand jury, then by a Justice Department civil rights investigation. However, the Justice Department also found that the department in which Wilson served systematically discriminated against Ferguson’s black residents.
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Here are five new insights into Wilson and his world from Halpern’s profile:
Wilson’s mother was a compulsive thief
Wilson’s mother suffered from mental illness and a predilection for stealing. Specifically, his mother had a penchant for writing hot checks and engaging in elaborate cons, “at one point posing as an heiress poised to inherit millions of dollars.”
Wilson said that his mother was loving, but couldn’t be trusted not to steal from her own children. When he took his first summer job, Wilson kept his money in two bank accounts – a decoy account for his mother to pilfer, and one where he kept the majority of his actual savings.
His mother’s criminal habits were beginning to catch up with her right before her unexpected death.
“Despite her compulsive thievery, Dean somehow avoided prison. Finally, a judge warned her that if she appeared in his court again she would be jailed. Shortly afterward, in 2002, she died unexpectedly. At the time, Wilson didn’t understand what had triggered her death, but he now thinks that it might have been suicide,” wrote Halpern.
Wilson preferred to police black communities
In 2008, Wilson left a life as a construction worker for a “recession-proof career” in policing. Although he had trouble relating to the residents of impoverished black communities early in his career, Wilson sought out work in such areas.
“If you go there and you do three to five years, get your experience, you can kind of write your own ticket,” Wilson reportedly told Halpern.
After spending some years as a cop in the predominately black town of Jennings, Wilson said he developed a fondness for the black community itself, and avoided looking for work in white municipalities.
“I liked the black community,” Wilson told the writer. “I had fun there … There’s people who will just crack you up.” The former police officer also told The New Yorker that he preferred the more hectic pace of the Ferguson job.
“I didn’t want to just sit around all day,” Wilson told Halpern.
Wilson rejects the idea that the Ferguson Police Department was systemically racist - but objects to some of its practices
Wilson hasn’t read the Justice Department’s report on the systemic racism of the Ferguson police, telling Halpern, “I don’t have any desire…I’m not going to keep living in the past about what Ferguson did. It’s out of my control.”
When Halpern confronted Wilson with statistics showing that Ferguson police singled-out African-American residents for traffic violations, Wilson shrugged them off.
While Wilson believes that the department had a few bigoted members, he told Halpern that the Justice Department’s numbers were “skewed” and that “You can make those numbers fit whatever agenda you want.”
Still, Wilson felt the department had its flaws:
“Wilson says that he liked working in Ferguson, but after a year or so he discerned problems within the department. One day, he received a call about a woman screaming in the street. When he arrived on the scene, a rookie officer had already forced her onto the ground, arrested her, and handcuffed her. But the woman, the rookie had realized, hadn’t deserved this treatment: she was having some kind of anxiety attack. ‘Now what?’ he asked Wilson.
‘You don’t even know why you arrested somebody?’ Wilson said. Then he recalled who the rookie’s field-training officer had been. Wilson summed up that officer’s approach as ‘Arrest them and figure it out later.’”
Wilson believes racism in America is a thing of the past
While acknowledging the documented racism of Missouri police forces in previous eras, Wilson implies that such racial hatred is a thing of the past.
“ ‘I am really simple in the way that I look at life,” Wilson told Halpern. “What happened to my great-grandfather is not happening to me. I can’t base my actions off what happened to him.”
He believes that when impoverished people turn to crime, they do so because they lack cultural values, not economic opportunity.
“There’s a lack of jobs everywhere,” Wilson said. “But there’s also lack of initiative to get a job. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
Wilson acknowledged that the majority of jobs in Ferguson paid poorly, but argued “That’s how I started. You’ve got to start somewhere.”
Wilson lives in hiding, avoids racially diverse public places
Wilson claims he has received countless death threats since the day of Brown’s death. His name is not on the deed of his house, and “only a few friends know where he lives.” He has a system of security cameras synched to his smartphone to keep him aware of possible intruders.
Wilson’s wife Barb used to be friends with Stephanie Edwards, the mother of Michael Brown’s stepfather. But she told Halpern that the two have not spoken since the shooting. And these days she and her husband make a conscious effort to avoid racially diverse public places.
“At one point, I asked Wilson if he missed walking outside and going to restaurants,” writes Halpern. “He told me that he still ate out, but only at certain places. ‘We try to go somewhere—how do I say this correctly?—with like-minded individuals,’ he said. ‘You know. Where it’s not a mixing pot.’”