CHARLES TOWN – Sheriff Pete Dougherty says if he were the lawman in charge in Ferguson, Mo., he’d be more forthcoming about the events leading up to the shooting of an unarmed teenager on Aug. 9.
“If I were the sheriff in the case – I’d want to give the best info possible that I could gather,” Dougherty said Monday, the same day that mourners gathered for the funeral of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who wasn’t armed when he was shot six times by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson. “When the shots happened, [Brown was] in the middle of the street and blocking traffic. I would tell people exactly what were happening there.
“Some reports talk about injuries to officer. We may not have all the details yet [but] it’s that sheriff’s responsibility to recount those facts – how it happened, what the sequence was.
“The best he can do is not try to paint the story one way or another but to give the public as much facts as possible. I don’t think a good job was done in doing that.”
After Brown’s death and authorities’ decision to leave his body on the street for hours, community members and others began days of protests. Ferguson police initially responded with a show of force, arresting members of the media and firing rubber bullets at protestors.
Dougherty suggests that in cases such as Brown’s death, getting an outside agency to examine what happened makes sense rather than have locals close to the shooting determine whether the officer faces charges.
“I’ve maintained for a long time, if excessive force or those types of things are done, I’m perfectly fine to have an independent review.”
Ferguson authorities haven’t released details about how the conflict between Brown and Wilson began and then quickly escalated, he said.
“[Brown] was a big guy, much bigger than the officer,” said Dougherty, who had worked for the federal government on veterans issues for decades before being appointed sheriff last year. “I don’t know if he came after the officer and was hitting him.
“It’s easy for us to sit back in our easy chairs and pass judgment, but if I think someone is trying to kill me, I’m going to shoot until I think the threat is gone – if I don’t, it may be me who gets killed instead.”
Dougherty said it’s important for everyone to avoid drawing conclusions about the case before the facts are known.
“One of the thing my years working as a magistrate, working on legal issues at the state and federal level and now my experience working here as sheriff have taught me is before I jump to a final conclusion, I want to have all the facts,” he said. “We don’t have them.”
Dougherty said that while the events in Ferguson are disturbing, he doesn’t want people to also forget that police have a hard job.
“It’s a very tough place for law enforcement to be,” he said. “More than 150 police officers are killed each year. They have the toughest job imaginable because they never know whether they are going in purely to help someone or if they are going into a situation where someone is deliberately intent on killing them.”
Dougherty said he hopes to see public trust in law enforcement rebuilt in Ferguson and other areas of the country where citizens are decrying what’s happened there.
“I think it’s critical and in a free society the way it stays free – is to have a responsible policing system that the public can trust,” Dougherty said.
One way to rebuild that trust is by showing that the justice system works as the case moves through the system. “It’s up to the courts [to deal with Wilson],” he said. “The Constitution calls us to do things in blind justice.”
Dougherty also hopes that the nation’s citizens can begin to concentrate on similarities, rather than differences. “As a Christian, I believe in the concept of a soul,” he said. “I don’t believe there is an Asian, black or white soul. We are all humans and all require respect and dignity from one another.”
Dougherty – who became sheriff after the resignation of Bobby Shirley, a fellow Democrat who was headed to federal prison after beating a Harpers Ferry man suspected of bank robbery following a high-speed chase through Berkeley and Jefferson counties – said he doesn’t believe deputies here treat minority citizens differently than whites.
People get arrested when there is sufficient reason to arrest them, Dougherty said.
“We simply don’t arrest them for any other reason,” he said. “If someone looks different – the fact that they are rich or poor – isn’t a good reason to arrest. We only arrest if the person violated the laws of the state.”
He said his officers are trained properly.
“We as a department train constantly,” he said. “We as a department have done over 1,300 hours of training [in the past year]. Much of it about understanding the law and enforcement. Much of it about personal training, when and when not to use fire arms. Unlike the television version – police officers almost never pull their guns.
“The only time our people are authorized to pull their gun is when they think their life or someone else’s is in danger. And any time any officer discharges a weapon, we are required to file a report, even if someone calls about a deer and they fired a gun – we still have to file a report.”
Americans as a whole should exercise peace and respect toward one another, Dougherty stressed.
“Anyone who just concludes that someone is good or bad based on their race is just wrong,” he said. “There is good and bad in every race. The secret in living a good life is to recognize that. We do celebrate it in a society that is very diverse.
“During my time on the board of education of Jefferson County, I always argued that we need to be teaching our children to live in a more diverse world than we lived in.”
He recognizes some Americans still cling to racial attitudes that date to the Jim Crow era, when some citizens enjoyed more civil rights depending on the color of their skin.
“There is a small segment of the population that would like to go back to a time where that didn’t exist, but that is not my view.”