Lessons of Ferguson: Why a week of rage didn’t have to happen

08/16/2014 10:00 AM

08/16/2014 3:48 PM

The small city of Ferguson, Mo., surely did not ask to become the epicenter of race-based anger and a police militarization controversy. But there are lessons to be gleaned from the disaster that began last Saturday when one of its police officers, Darren Wilson, fatally shot an unarmed teenager, 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Before the shooting

Ferguson’s police force was marked by an acute racial imbalance. Only three of 50 police officers are black, in a city of 21,000 persons that is 63 percent black. Diversity in law enforcement helps build trust with minority communities, and cities must be proactive about minority hiring.

Kansas City, Kan., is setting a good example. After taking office last year, Unified Government Mayor Mark Holland called in the U.S. Department of Justice’s community relations service to help step up hiring of blacks and women on the police and fire departments.

Data compiled by the Missouri attorney general’s office reflects another problem in Ferguson. Of all traffic stops conducted last year, 86 percent involved black citizens. Black people accounted for an alarming 93 percent of arrests in 2013.

It’s good that Missouri compiles such information, as required by law. But the state needs to require corrective steps of law enforcement agencies that show signs of engaging in racial profiling.

Day of the shooting

Brown was shot several times, and reportedly from a distance at which he presented no threat to Wilson. Some witnesses said he had his hands in the air. Brown and a friend were walking down a street when the officer engaged with them.

Wilson and a companion of Brown’s have presented conflicting accounts. The officer contends he was threatened. But it is difficult to believe that deadly force was the only option available. There are few more urgent tasks for police departments than to train officers how to deal with threatening situations without resorting to firearms.

Police took much too long to process the crime scene. Brown’s body remained on the sidewalk where he died for four hours, during which time a crowd gathered and anger mounted. The Ferguson Police Department doesn’t work many homicides, but it should have had resources to draw upon to move more quickly.

The police cruiser Wilson was driving had no dashboard camera or recording device. People have understandably remarked on the irony of a police department in possession of military artillery but unable to afford basic equipment that can protect both officers and citizens in the aftermath of incidents.

On Friday, Ferguson police disclosed that Brown was suspected of intimidating a convenience store worker and stealing a box of cigars shortly before he was shot but added that the robbery report was unconnected with Wilson’s stop. The timing of that disclosure, coinciding with the much-anticipated release of Wilson’s name, infuriated Brown’s supporters and may have contributed to more mayhem early Saturday. It was inept at best and possibly malicious.

After the shooting

Law enforcement agencies, coordinated by the St. Louis County police, dealt with mounting unrest in the worst possible way. Police took to the streets with helmets and gas masks. They carried assault rifles and tear gas canisters. Some rode atop armored trucks. The operation looked more like a Marine offensive than a city police operation.

Police aimed tear gas canisters at residents in their yards and at news crews. They fired rubber bullets at people. The more aggressive they became, the angrier grew the crowds.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, acting at least a day too late, finally on Thursday put the security operation under the control of Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, an African-American lawman who grew up in the Ferguson area. Johnson ordered police to ditch the military gear. He met people with hugs and handshakes, listened to them and even led an impromptu march.

The tension lowered immediately, although some hooligans continued to exploit the situation. Because of more looting, Nixon on Saturday declared a state of emergency and set a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew. It’s unfortunate the situation had to come to that.

Politicians of all persuasions are vowing to ratchet back the militarization of local police departments, many of which are flush with war equipment from Homeland Security grants.

That is a worthwhile pursuit. Police are supposed to be peacekeepers, not occupiers. They are to treat people as citizens, not enemies.

If police in and around Ferguson had absorbed those lessons earlier, Michael Brown might be alive, and the city of Ferguson may never have become a symbol of all that can go wrong.

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