Long-simmering tensions over policing and race relations boiled over on Aug. 9 when a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo.
Crowds gathered, rage erupted and the nation was drawn into an emotional examination of the way its police and criminal justice system treat people of color.
The passions stirred on many fronts remain high as the year draws to a close.
Decisions by grand juries not to indict the officer who shot Brown or a New York City police officer whose choke-hold tactic resulted in the death of another black man, Eric Garner, gave rise to enduring protests across the nation. And the appalling murders of two New York City police officers have kindled recriminations against the protesters and politicians who have sympathized with them.
The St. Louis area remains particularly tense. Angry crowds gathered this week when a police officer in Berkeley, Mo., fatally shot an 18-year-old black man. Emotions abated somewhat when a surveillance camera appeared to show that the teenager had pointed a gun at the officer.
Cool heads and empathy will be needed in 2015 as communities and the nation continue to wrangle with these issues.
Contentions by black Americans that they are subject to more aggressive policing and less protection from the criminal justice system than white Americans are valid and must lead to reforms.
But the many hardworking police officers who protect communities in a fair and courageous manner deserve respect and protection, too.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James this week appropriately touched on both sides of this divide, saying, “I support protests but I definitely support our local police, too.” Police Chief Darryl Forté, who like James is African-American, has encouraged lawful protests in the city, including positive communication with and treatment of marchers. That helps explain the lack of violence or much illegal behavior so far in Kansas City.
The events and issues that have come to be summed up as “Ferguson” will resonate particularly loudly in Missouri.
Gov. Jay Nixon has been heavily criticized by fellow Democrats, Republicans, blacks and whites for moving too slowly and ineffectually to quell violent outbreaks following Brown’s death, and for failing to prevent more destruction after the grand jury’s decision in the case was announced.
Nixon’s actions and sometimes-bumbling demeanor frustrated African-Americans, who are seeking a coherent voice to address their concerns about racial profiling, indiscriminate ticketing for minor offenses and failing schools. He fared no better with Missourians who viewed much of what went on in Ferguson as a breakdown of law and order. The governor has a lot of fence-mending ahead of him.
He did make some positive moves, including appointment of the “Ferguson Commission,” which must do the hard work of listening to people’s concerns and offering meaningful solutions.
Soon, the Missouri General Assembly will consider a number of bills that have been filed in the wake of Ferguson. They include proposals for clearer parameters for police use of deadly force, requiring special prosecutors for all police shootings and universal use of body cameras by police. These should be handled without emotion and with an eye toward unintended consequences.
A number of officials, including state auditor Tom Schweich and Attorney General Chris Koster, are working on the problem of police departments aggressively handing out traffic tickets to raise money for municipalities. This practice, rampant in and around Ferguson, is unfair and poisonous for relationships between police and citizens.
Nationally, President Barack Obama should use the events of 2014 to push for substantive progress in race relations in America. His actions so far have been appropriate. Obama correctly called for calm after the grand jury decisions in Brown’s and Garner’s deaths and following the murders of New York police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has opened civil rights investigations in Ferguson and elsewhere. Those should be handled properly and lead to constructive actions.
The new focus on policing and race relations was conceived in tragedy and continues to claim lives. It is imperative in 2015 to turn the terrible losses into some lasting good.
This is the second of a five-part series on major issues that will ignore the calendar year’s end and demand attention again in 2015.