Barbara Shelly

Homicides and disrespect fed the fury of Ferguson

Jamell Spann vented his anguish and rage at police officers in Ferguson, Mo. “All of my friends have been killed,” he yelled.
Jamell Spann vented his anguish and rage at police officers in Ferguson, Mo. “All of my friends have been killed,” he yelled. The Associated Press

One of the many wrenching photos to come out of Ferguson, Mo., this week shows a tall young black man confronting heavily armed police.

“All of my friends have been killed,” Jamell Spann yelled. “I’m sick of it.”

Police didn’t kill his friends, but it is all of a piece. Young black men in certain ZIP codes all over the United States are at high risk of death by homicide. Larger communities don’t care enough, or do enough, to stop the killing. Now a shooting by a police officer has added to the carnage. A teenager named Michael Brown is dead, and all week long the small city of Ferguson in North St. Louis County has boiled with the rage of people who, like Spann, are sick of it.

Police bear the brunt of the anger. It’s not uncommon for officers to be cursed on Kansas City’s East Side as they try to secure and work homicide scenes.

The problems are multiple and complex. Young people see their friends and brothers and cousins murdered, often without consequence to the killers, as though those lost lives have no value. Yet mistrust of authority and fear of retribution runs so deep that police and prosecutors can’t get the information they need to put killers behind bars.

People who live in dangerous neighborhoods — and, for that matter, black men anywhere — have the added burden of being considered inherently dangerous.

In an essay in Salon, Rutgers University professor Brittney Cooper put it this way: “Mike Brown is dead. He is dead for no reason. He is dead because a police officer saw a 6-foot-4, 300-plus-pound black kid, and miscalculated the level of threat. To be black in this country is to be subject to routine forms of miscalculated risk each and every day.”

Exactly what happened around noon on Saturday is in dispute. Ferguson police say the 18-year-old recent high school graduate struggled with an officer in a patrol car.

His companion and at least one witness say the police officer was the aggressor. Witnesses saw Brown with his hands in the air when the officer fired shots and killed him.

According to a young man who was with Brown, the incident began when a police officer pulled up and told them, using a profanity, to “get the...on the sidewalk.”

That seems plausible, so let’s assume for the moment that the friend’s account is accurate. A police officer who initiates a contact that way either is poorly trained or unfit for duty, or both. What incentive would young men addressed so rudely have to cooperate with police when there is an actual problem in the neighborhood?

Ask yourself: Would a cop talk that way to a couple of white kids in a more upscale setting?

I have been fortunate to witness good police officers at work. A good cop, if bothered by people walking in the street, would have seized an opportunity, would have said something like, “did you know there is a city ordinance that says you have to walk on the sidewalk?”

Maybe the young men would have stared at the ground. Maybe they would have met the officer’s inquiry with hard stares. Or maybe they would have answered yes or no, and opened the door to a conversation. That’s a positive interaction that could pay off down the road.

Police cannot by themselves fix broken families and neighborhoods, provide good schools and job opportunities, rid cities of firearms or convince hardened criminals to stop killing people.

But they can put well-trained officers on the street who understand the value of respecting citizens and forming relationships. Ferguson, with a serious racial imbalance in its police force and a history of racial profiling, seems not to have comprehended that.

Other communities must learn the lessons of Ferguson, and quickly. There is too much mistrust, too much disrespect, too much death. We should all be sick of it.

Reach Barbara Shelly at 816-234-4594 or Twitter: bshelly.