One year after a white police officer fatally shot a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., the nation is still coming to grips with a series of truths about itself:
▪ Race relations are complicated. They are fraught with the weight of history and with unresolved tensions and economic disparities even a half century after the major reforms of the civil rights era.
▪ A significant segment of the American people mistrust authority, a disturbing situation heightened by a string of fatal police shootings of African-American citizens before and after Ferguson.
“Half of African-American respondents, including 6 in 10 black men, said they personally had been treated unfairly by police because of their race, compared with 3 percent of whites,” according to a new poll by The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
▪ Law enforcement practices and the criminal justice system overall are undergoing a much needed period of assessment. Cities, states and the federal government are examining closely how authorities police their communities and how they can better address social and economic forces that accompany issues of crime, imprisonment and mutual distrust.
Ferguson, the small town in St. Louis County that is still healing from last year’s outbreaks of violence and rage, has come to stand for a story far larger than its own patch of the planet. Ferguson — the collective name of a series of unfortunate events — spawned a grass-roots political movement, inspired a new generation of activists, caused soul-searching and defensiveness in police ranks everywhere and prompted a national conversation that generally comes back to the conclusion that “we have a lot of work left to do.”
Many states and localities tried to address and change various policies on police training, use of force and adoption of body cameras for police. More of those efforts failed than succeeded, according to an Associated Press report. In Missouri, about 65 bills emerged in the state legislature after Ferguson, yet only one passed. It was a good one, limiting police ticketing and municipal court fines, which capped a widespread practice of revenue generation on the backs of those least able to afford it.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon created a commission that proposed dozens of specific improvements affecting police, courts, schools and economic opportunity. The commission could be a force for positive change, especially in the St. Louis area, which was left deeply shaken by the Ferguson events. But it will need support from the governor and the Missouri General Assembly to sustain momentum.
Nixon also announced last week he had called on the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission to improve police training, especially related to community engagement, racial profiling and “the health and well-being of officers.” He appointed new members to the panel, including a Kansas City pastor, Emanuel Cleaver III, pending state Senate approval.
Many people are wondering how effective this series of steps can be and lament how slowly reforms are being absorbed.
Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté has said for many months that he welcomes the use of body cameras by his force. But he wants to set clear rules on when they are turned on and who can see the video.
Forté said last week that the department was still researching how to pay for the cameras, as well as the costly storage of information. Funds will be requested in the next city budget, yet that won’t be approved until early 2016. He also wants to pursue legislative changes in early 2016 in Jefferson City. Forté said current laws could allow the release of video of “what I feel should be confidential (sex crimes, info sources, inside private structures).” Other cities and states have worked this out; Kansas City and Missouri certainly should be able to as well.
Year-after Ferguson stories have appeared in abundance in recent days. A disappointing Gallup poll released Thursday reported a sharp decline in Americans’ views of race relations. Only 47 percent of respondents described black-white relations as good, down from 70 percent just two years ago.
The great irony of Ferguson is that Police Officer Darren Wilson almost certainly was under threat of harm when he shot teenager Michael Brown, based on the findings of a U.S. Justice Department investigation. But Brown’s body, lying for four hours on a street that hot Saturday, became a symbol for years of pent-up frustration and rage.
In “Between the World and Me,” his unsettling and achingly honest recent book about black identity today, the essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates captures a crucial undertow emanating from Ferguson: “Michael Brown did not die as so many of his defenders supposed. And still the questions behind the questions are never asked. Should assaulting an officer of the state be a capital offense, rendered without trial, with the officer as judge and executioner? Is that what we wish civilization to be?”
Soul searching and reconciliation remain a tall order, but a necessary one as the nation confronts this lingering and fundamental conflict about the meaning of equality and justice in America.
Nixon on Ferguson now and then
▪ “We listened and we learned and things are getting better.”
▪ “We could never have rebuilt trust if American soldiers had lowered their weapons and discharged them at American citizens.”
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon spoke with The Kansas City Star's editorial board in July on a range of topics. Go to KansasCity.com for video of what he had to say about Ferguson, one year later.