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Editor's Weekly: Facts matter, and not just for Ferguson

The rubble of a burned down business on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson.
File photo by Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo

Facts matter. Two Justice Department reports about Ferguson brought that home this week.

One investigation shone an unrelenting spotlight on the Ferguson police and municipal court and called on the city to clean up racially biased patterns and attitudes. The report — and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s forceful speech about it — backed up conclusions with an avalanche of specifics, from racist remarks in officials’ emails to examples of lives destroyed by Ferguson’s aggressive policing.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said the city had already taken some steps to address its problems. Holder pledged that the department would follow through to right the litany of wrongs.

The report concluded on a little-noticed positive note: “Our investigation indicates that Ferguson as a city has the capacity to reform its approach to law enforcement. A small municipal department may offer greater potential for officers to form partnerships and have frequent, positive interactions with Ferguson residents, repairing and maintaining police-community relationships.”

Ferguson’s potential hasn't gotten much attention lately — nor has its previous track record of effort to build a thriving, racially diverse community. Instead, Ferguson — and the St. Louis region — are known around the world by the images of outrage and confrontation broadcast in recent months.

The incompleteness of this picture has consequences far beyond Ferguson. If people vilify Ferguson, then they may miss its most important lesson: Racial problems can permeate even attractive communities where concerned citizens are working for good. The issues that exploded here have roots and consequences that need to be addressed in many places.

In fact, Michael Brown’s death sparked nationwide turmoil precisely because it was one in a series of controversies and part of a web of issues involving police, justice and opportunity.

A second Justice Department report this week presented other revealing facts. Drawn from an exhaustive investigation of witnesses and evidence, this investigation clarifies what happened when then Ferguson officer Darren Wilson shot Brown.

“The evidence, when viewed as a whole, does not support the conclusion that Wilson’s uses of deadly force were ‘objectively unreasonable’ under the Supreme Court’s definition,” the report concludes.

It found that certain widely-held beliefs about the encounter were not true. Brown did not have his hands up in a gesture of surrender, the report says, and he was moving toward Wilson when he was killed. In other words, some of the specifics that inspired nationwide protest were wrong.

Holder argued that people were inclined to believe untruths because Ferguson’s underlying problems had eroded trust between residents and police. Whether or not that’s true, a pattern of problems doesn’t excuse anyone from responsibility to get facts right in a specific incident. Journalists are among those who must own up to some failures in this case.

Facts matter. In finding solutions, so will people’s responses to the troubling facts that the Justice Department released this week. Soul-searching is harder than finger-pointing. But perhaps the St. Louis region is ready for soul-searching now. Concerned citizens around the country would be wise to do the same, asking tough questions that the facts raise — not only about Ferguson but also about other communities and  ourselves.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.