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With the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, "Ferguson" became shorthand for racial strife and police shootings of unarmed black men.
But years before the protests and chants of "Hands up, don't shoot," there was something amiss in the Ferguson, Mo., police department.
Before Michael Brown, there was Fred Watson.
Watson, a veteran and St. Louis native, was at a public park in Ferguson that summer, playing basketball with friends. He says he spotted a police officer wandering through the park, "randomly selecting people" and arresting them.
After he was finished playing basketball, Watson sat in his car and watched a baseball game happening in the park.
That's when the police officer he'd seen earlier pulled up behind him. The officer, Eddie Boyd III, got out of his squad car and walked to Watson's window. He asked if Watson knew why the officer had pulled him over.
"Sir, you didn't pull me over. You didn't stop me. I was sitting here. I've been here for 10 or 15 minutes," Watson recalls saying, in an interview with NPR's Michel Martin.
The officer asked Watson for his Social Security number. Watson declined to give the officer that information.
From there, Watson says, things went crazy. "He was yelling, screaming, telling me to throw my keys out of the car, telling me to get out of the car," he says.
In response to questioning, Watson told the officer his name and where he lived. "Then I actually picked my phone up to call the police," he says. "He, again, yelling, irate, telling me to put the phone down for police safety."
Watson put down his phone, and, afraid of provoking the officer, he grabbed the steering wheel "to make sure there's no sudden movements on my behalf. So I don't get myself killed."
"I can kill you right here!" the black officer shouted at the black man in his car, according to Watson. "Nobody will give a f***."
Watson didn't respond. He didn't move. He just kept squeezing the steering wheel, hoping the danger would pass.
Systemic violation of rights
When the Department of Justice was investigating the Ferguson Police Department, it talked about Watson's case, as an example of the systemic violations of the rights of the Ferguson's African-American residents — and how these violations can impact people's lives.
"Even relatively routine misconduct by Ferguson police officers can have significant consequences for the people whose rights are violated," the Justice Department report said. "Without cause, the officer went on to accuse the man of being a pedophile, prohibit the man from using his cell phone, order the man out of his car for a pat-down despite having no reason to believe he was armed, and ask to search his car. When the man refused, citing his constitutional rights, the officer reportedly pointed a gun at his head, and arrested him."
Officer Boyd handcuffed Watson, took him to jail, and wrote him up on several charges, including not having a driver's license or registration, having an expired driver's license and not having Missouri tags. Watson says none of these charges had merit. Boyd also ticketed Watson, who had been sitting in his parked car, for not wearing his seatbelt.
When he was arrested, Watson was working with National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, in a job that required a top-secret security clearance. After facing so many charges, that lingered for so long, Watson lost his security clearance — and with it, his job.
"I go from having a majority of everything we want and need, to not having anything. Sleeping in a storage unit, in the back of my car, in the basement, in garages," he says. "It's a catastrophic event."
Years of legal wrangling
"The prosecutor should have taken one look at this case, taken one look at the file — which included Fred's driver's license, registration, insurance, all of these charges that were clearly without any foundation — and dismiss the case," says Watson's attorney Blake Strode, a civil rights lawyer with ArchCity Defenders.
Instead, it took five years and multiple attorneys for Watson to try to extricate himself from the legal system. Guilty pleas have been entered on Watson's behalf, without his consent or knowledge. His lawyers had to navigate the system to move to withdraw those pleas, as the case was certified to circuit court. Finally, the second prosecutor on the case dismissed all charges.
Watson found out the charges were dropped when his lawyer notified him. "In my opinion it was done underhandedly," he says. "It was done in a sneaky manner."
Even though all the charges were tossed out, Watson says he doesn't feel vindicated. "I feel like, again, it's just another step. Nobody has called. Nobody has said that, 'We're going to fire the police officer Eddie Boyd, we're going to try to do something right, we're going to at least provide the wages lost or we're going to do something to get you your job back or your clearance renewed. Nothing."
Complaint filed against the officer
Before the charges were dismissed, Watson filed a federal complaint against the officer and the city of Ferguson for civil rights violations. That case is pending. "What we've seen so far is really a city that's been pretty resistant to owning up fully to the damage they cause in the lives of people like Fred," attorney Blake Strode says.
Watson's story is not unique, Strode says. "There are people in the streets here in St. Louis protesting the killing of a young black man named Anthony Lamar Smith, and the acquittal of the police officer who killed him." On Friday, a judge acquitted a white, former police officer, Jason Stockley, of first degree murder charges for the shooting death of Smith in 2011.
The major difference in Watson's case, Strode says, is that "fortunately, Fred is here with us. And those people, those lives were taken from them."
The St. Louis protesters aren't just objecting to police misconduct, Strode says.
"The whole system is guilty," he says. "And Fred's case is such a perfect example of that. ... The police officer acted poorly and unlawfully and abusively. Those charges had to be reviewed by supervisors. They had to be presented to a prosecutor, who issued the cases. So we really are talking about a systemic failure here."
Watson's case, Strode says, is just part of "a broader continuum of cases that really reflect the ways in which the lives of poor people and people of color are destroyed by the very system that purports to protect and serve them."
NPR's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi produced the audio version of this story.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to go back to St. Louis now where tensions are still high today after a judge on Friday acquitted a white former police officer, Jason Stockley, of first degree murder charges in the shooting death of an African-American man back in 2011. The case has put the St. Louis area once again at the center of national debate over police treatment of African-Americans.
Now, usually when these cases come to public attention, it's unfortunately because somebody has died. But now we want to talk about a different case where no one was killed but where the repercussions have, nevertheless, been profound.
Fred Watson is a Navy veteran and cybersecurity contractor who was arrested in 2012 while sitting in his parked car. He was parked at a public park in Ferguson. Watson was charged with several minor charges, including not wearing a seatbelt. But all of that ended up costing him his security clearance and, thus, his career.
Earlier this week, after five years of legal wrangling, the city of Ferguson suddenly dropped all charges against Fred Watson. To hear more about all this we're joined now by Fred Watson and his lawyer Blake Strode from the civil rights law firm Arch City Defenders. They're with us from St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis. Fred Watson, Blake Strode, thank you so much for speaking with us.
FRED WATSON: Thank you for having us.
BLAKE STRODE: Thank you for having us.
MARTIN: So, first of all, Mr. Watson, could you just give us a sense of where you were in your life when you were arrested and charged?
WATSON: My life was well. I was working with National Geospatial Intelligence Agency - two years in at that point. I'm a veteran from St. Louis. I'm born and raised in a city. Taken every precaution to do everything right as best I could.
MARTIN: So what happened that day when you were sitting in that park?
WATSON: That day, in Ferguson, August 2012, playing basketball and - with some friends. The police officer was in and out of the park just, I mean, arresting people randomly - taking people off the track, taking people out of cars. After I finished playing ball, I moved down. And I was watching the baseball game.
While I'm watching the baseball game, I noticed the police officer come back into the park and parked his car in front of my car, blocking me into a parking spot. And the police officer gets out of his car and walks up to my car. He asks me, do I know why he stopped me? Do I know why he pulled me over? I said, sir, you didn't pull me over. You didn't stop me. I was sitting here. I've been here for 10 or 15 minutes or so.
And he asked me for my Social Security number. I told him I couldn't give him my Social Security number. And from there, things just went crazy. He was yelling, screaming, telling me to throw my keys out the car, telling me to get out the car. Then I actually picked my phone up to call the police. He, again, yelling irate. Tell me to put the phone down for police safety so forth and so on.
After I'd done that, I grabbed the steering wheel to make sure there's no sudden movements on my behalf. So I don't - I don't get myself killed. He pulls his gun out. He puts the gun to my head and tells me, I can kill you right here. Nobody will give a [expletive]. Everything is just crazy at that point. And I stay in my seat, squeezing the steering wheel tight.
MARTIN: So did he finally take you into custody?
WATSON: Several, several, several minutes later, he called in for backup. And one police officer came to the window and just told me I need to do what he said. And I'm trying to explain to him I hadn't done anything wrong. I'm sitting here. I wasn't moving so forth and so on. And he told me he didn't care. I just need to do what the officer said, go over it later.
MARTIN: So how has all this affected your life?
WATSON: So I come from a place where everything is fine. I have two years of law school money saved up because I wanted to go to school. I go from having a majority of everything we want and need to not have anything - sleeping in a storage unit, in the back of my car, in a basement and garages. It's a catastrophic event.
MARTIN: So you were arrested for what - for what, by the way? What were the charges against you?
WATSON: No driver's license, no seatbelt, no registration, expired driver's license, no Missouri tag, which is a state inspection sticker, failure to register the vehicle - all of which I had. Driver's license was in the car. Registration was in the car. Insurance was in the car. Everything they said I did not have was in the car.
The police officer trashed the car. He found those things. I asked him, did he see my military - my government ID? And he just had a deer-in-a-headlight look. And that was that.
MARTIN: So let me go to your lawyer now. Mr. Strode, when the Department of Justice was investigating the Ferguson Police Department, which many people will remember because of the death of Michael Brown who was killed by a Ferguson police officer, one of the things that they talked about was Fred Watson's case. And they cited that as an example of the systemic violations of the rights of Ferguson's African-American residents. I just have to ask you, as his attorney, how did this go on for so long?
STRODE: The prosecutor should have taken one look at this case, taken one look at the file which included Fred's driver's license, registration, insurance - all of these charges that were clearly without any foundation and dismissed the case.
Instead, it took five years - guilty pleas being entered without Fred's consent or knowledge; a motion to withdraw those guilty pleas; the case being certified to circuit court; another motion to dismiss before the second prosecutor on the case finally dismissed them five years later.
MARTIN: Mr. Strode or Mr. Watson - I'm not sure who - how were you notified that the charges against you were finally dropped?
WATSON: This is Fred. I was notified by my lawyer. The prosecutor didn't call. They didn't call my lawyer. In my opinion, it was done underhandedly. It was done in a sneaky manner.
MARTIN: Do you at least feel - what's the right word? - vindicated?
WATSON: No, I do not. Feel like - again, it's just another step. There is - nobody has called. Nobody has said that we're going to fire the police officer, Eddie Boyd. We're going to try to do something right. We're going to at least provide the wages lost, or we're going to do something to get you your job back or your clearance renewed - no, nothing.
MARTIN: So what happens now? Does Mr. Watson have any recourse here?
STRODE: So before the charges were even dismissed, we filed a federal complaint against this officer and the city of Ferguson for various civil rights violations. And that case is pending. It's - we're still in the very early stages. And we're seeking monetary damage for Fred.
There are other steps the city could take. As he mentions, they could fire this officer. They could commit to certain changes. But what we've seen so far is really a city that's been pretty resistant to owning up fully to the damage they cause in the lives of people like Fred.
MARTIN: Do you think Fred Watson's story is unique?
STRODE: I think sadly it's not unique. You know, right now, while we're having this conversation, there are people in the streets here in St. Louis protesting the killing of a young black man named Anthony Lamar Smith and the acquittal of the police officer who killed him. And this is one of a number of high-profile police killings here in the St. Louis area in the past several years.
The major difference, for me, between Fred's case and Mike Brown or Anthony Lamar Smith is that fortunately Fred is here with us and those people were - their lives were taken from them. And so when we listen to the folks who are in the street protesting, what they're protesting is not just the police misconduct. You know, one of the common refrains is - I'll paraphrase - the whole system is guilty. And Fred's case is such a perfect example of that to me.
What we're talking about is a case of systemic failure. The police officer acted poorly and unlawfully and abusively. Those charges had to be reviewed by supervisors. They had to be presented to a prosecutor who issued the cases. So we really are talking about a systemic failure here.
To us, and given our work at Arch City Defenders, Fred's case is part of a broader continuum of cases that really reflect the ways in which the lives of poor people and people of color are destroyed by the very system that purports to protect and serve them.
MARTIN: So, Mr. Watson, I just wanted to give you the final word here. You know, a lot of people who will be hearing this conversation will just have a hard time believing this - that something like this happened to you. I mean, their instinct will be to say, well, he must've done something wrong or there must have been something that triggered this. And for people who may feel that way, what would you say?
WATSON: I have a hard time believing it. I was there. It happened to me.
MARTIN: Do you at least feel as though you're getting your life back in any way?
WATSON: Nothing has changed. No, I don't.
MARTIN: That's Fred Watson. He's a Navy veteran and cybersecurity expert. He's been fighting a legal battle with the city of Ferguson, Mo., for the past five years that cost him his security clearance and thus his job. The city dropped its cases against him earlier this week.
We were also joined by Blake strode. He's representing Mr. Watson. He's a civil rights lawyer with Arch City Defenders. They both joined us from St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis. Fred Watson, Blake Strode, thank you so much for being with us.
WATSON: Thank you.
STRODE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.