Darren Wilson, An Uneasy New Dad In Virtual Hiding
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
When Jake Halpern pulled up to Darren Wilson's house this spring, he writes that Wilson came out wearing a hat and sunglasses. Wilson had seen the journalist arriving on security cameras linked to his phone. He's effectively in hiding after being cleared of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown last August in Ferguson, Mo. Jake Halpern's profile in the latest issue of the New Yorker is simply titled "The Cop," and he's with us now from New Haven, Conn., to talk about it. Welcome to the program.
JAKE HALPERN: Hey. Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: So Darren Wilson is now a former cop, right? How would you describe the guy who greeted you behind sunglasses in that first visit to Missouri back in March?
HALPERN: You know, I think he was fairly uneasy throughout the entire time I spent with him. He doesn't get out much. We did drive, at one point, around his old hometown, and he was particularly uneasy when we were out in the car in kind of visibility. In the house, he just seemed kind of cooped up. He's got a newborn kid, so that kind of - he's spending a lot of time with her. You just got the sense of a guy who was not leaving his house hardly at all.
CORNISH: And this is a home that he was able to purchase in part because of his supporters, correct?
HALPERN: Yeah. In the wake of the shooting and everything that followed, they raised about $500,000 in the Wilson's name. And that money went to pay his legal expenses and has bought him a new house. It's not an especially fancy house, but it's a new house and has been able to bankroll the family so that they can get by because now both of them are not working. His wife, Barb Wilson, who was also in the Ferguson PD, has since left. So they're both unemployed, and Wilson says he's unemployable.
CORNISH: Has he tried to apply for other department jobs?
HALPERN: Yeah. He has applied. He told me that he applied to a number of positions, and nothing came through. There was a moment that seemed very telling. And one of the times that I was at his house, he opened up a drawer. And in the drawer, it was stacked with, I would say, several hundred patches from police departments around the country, and they ostensibly had sent it to him as a sign of support. And yet, not a single one of those departments was going to offer him a job.
CORNISH: Wilson's first policing job was in the small city of Jennings, Mo. The police department had a documented history of tension between its white police officers and the city's black residents. Four years ago, the entire department was shut down in order to rebuild it. Wilson was laid off, and that's when he got a job in Ferguson. Jake Halpern read police reports written by Wilson during his time there, and he says one stood out.
HALPERN: Yeah, so I looked at his police records pretty carefully. And he had conducted a number of these ped. checks, which are pedestrian checks. And the Justice Department said that these in general were a problem in Ferguson. And I looked at one incident in which Wilson encounters a young black man named Aaron Simmons on a February night. It's cold. He sees him four times in front of a minimart. The minimart supposedly was a drug transaction spot. And based on this, he says hey, take your hands out of your pockets. Simmons refuses, and then Wilson says put your hands up on the car. Again, he refuses, and then he arrests Simmons for failure to comply.
Turns out, Simmons had nothing on him. He had no drugs, no weapons, and he gets roughed up a bit on his way to the jail. And I ask Wilson, you know, failure to comply - how does this work? And he says well, it can't just be me saying do this, and if they don't want to do it, then they're arrested. There are finer points than that. And I said can you explain those finer points? And he said, you know, I'd have to probably read the law again.
CORNISH: What, if anything, did he have to say about Michael Brown?
HALPERN: So I was very curious about this. And I asked him about this probably on three occasions. And the first time, he said, you know, his parents are suing me, so I have to think about them every day. And I said, yeah, but what do you think about him as a person? And he said well, it doesn't really matter what I think about him as a person. And do I think he had the best upbringing - no. And he was kind of harsh about it.
CORNISH: You just mentioned upbringing, but Darren Wilson's upbringing is also - you know, I guess checkered would be a good description. What can you tell us there?
HALPERN: Yeah, I was kind of surprised, actually, that Wilson didn't have more empathy towards the challenges that Mike Brown might have had in his life because Wilson had a super-challenging childhood of his own. His mother was bipolar. She was an identity thief. She wrote so many hot checks that Wilson would tell the parents of his friends, don't let my mom in your front door or she will steal your identities and max out your credit cards. He had to have two bank accounts to hide his money from his mother so that she wouldn't steal his money.
So this is where he came from, and I thought that maybe that would give him some empathy for - particularly for Mike Brown and whatever challenges he faced. But Wilson didn't see it that way.
CORNISH: Does he feel betrayed by the department?
HALPERN: Yeah. I think he does. Wilson claims that the department told him if he came back to the force, he would be putting them in danger. Wilson said they put that on me. So I think he feels that he was. And then the other thing was - is that his wife also was a police officer on the force. And she doesn't go back because she doesn't want to be on the street and known as his wife. So now they're both unemployed and can't find work, and I think that has created this sense of bitterness.
CORNISH: We talked about him greeting you at the door with sunglasses. Does it feel like he actually lives in hiding?
HALPERN: Yeah, totally. One of the most powerful parts he said to me, there's - when we go out in public, there are three words we never say - Darren Wilson, Michael Brown and Ferguson. And somehow, that just really struck a chord for me. He's trying to somehow excise that from his life, and it's just obviously impossible.
CORNISH: This, despite a Department of Justice report that cleared him of wrongdoing.
HALPERN: Yeah. The DOJ comes to the conclusion that he did not, in any way, violate Brown's civil rights and that his use of force was not a violation of law, so that's true. But yet, he's part of this police department that has this awful racist record. And it kind of leaves a lot of people scratching their heads saying what truth can I draw from these two seemingly irreconcilable conclusions? And my feeling is this is the messy reality of - that we live in today, and there's just no easy answers.
CORNISH: In the end, how did this change your understanding of Darren Wilson?
HALPERN: I think that meeting someone in person, whoever they are, meeting their family, seeing their child - you inevitably see them in a more human way. That's true. And yet, reading the police reports, even to some of his own police reports, I also felt like he is a human, but he was part of a system that was really doing some bad things.
I think I saw the contradictions of it, the really egregious things that that police department did and some of the checks that this guy did - the pedestrian checks and whatnot - that were super questionable and where there were real suffering as a result of it, and yet simultaneously see this guy as a three-dimensional human being. And it was complicated. It made it difficult to kind of come up with easy answers and, you know, swift, knee-jerk conclusions.
CORNISH: Jake Halpern - his piece about Darren Wilson is in the latest issue of the New Yorker magazine. It's called "The Cop." Thank you so much for speaking with us.
HALPERN: My pleasure. Thank you for your thoughtful questions. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.