Some commentators have suggested, based on little or no evidence, that drugs made Michael Brown behave in a way that caused Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson to shoot him. In my latest Forbes column, I argue that such speculation encourages the use of excessive force by stoking cops' fears of people they perceive to be under the influence, especially if those people happen to be black. Here is how the piece starts:
Darren Wilson thought Michael Brown was "on something." Or so says one of Wilson's friends, describing the police officer's state of mind when he shot and killed the unarmed black teenager on August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri. "He really thinks he was on something, because he just kept coming," the friend, identified only as "Josie," said during a phone call to a St. Louis radio show on Monday afternoon. "It was unbelievable."
Earlier that same day, Fox News commentator Jim Pinkerton made a similar suggestion. "Eyewitnesses said that Brown was charging the cops," Pinkerton said on the channel's Happening Now show. "We'll know more with a blood test. If he was high on some drug, angel dust or PCP or something…it's entirely possible you could take a lot more than six bullets and keep charging." In other words, if Brown was high on PCP, firing just six rounds into him would be a mark of restraint.
A few hours later, The Washington Post reported that the blood test anticipated by Pinkerton showed "Brown had marijuana in his system when he was shot." The article, based on information from an unnamed source familiar with St. Louis County's investigation of the shooting, said nothing about PCP.
Unfazed by that news, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., editor in chief of The American Spectator, speculated in a column published two days later that PCP-laced marijuana caused the aggressive behavior described by Wilson. "Those Swisher Sweet cigars are used as a conduit for ingesting a mixture of PCP and marijuana," Tyrrell wrote, referring to the stolen cigarillos Brown was carrying. "My guess is that Brown's senseless death was brought on by…psychosis and permanent brain injury."
It should be emphasized that witnesses disagree about whether Brown was moving toward Wilson when he was shot, which is a central point of contention in the case, since it underpins Wilson's claim that he fired in self-defense. But either way, attempts to explain Brown's alleged actions by reference to psychoactive substances he might have consumed exaggerate the power of those chemicals, which may encourage the use of excessive force by stoking officers' fears of people whom they perceive to be "on something." This kind of fear mongering is also regrettable because it harks back to a shameful history of warnings about people with dark skin and drug-infused blood.