Ferguson on my mind

I find myself fairly consumed recently with the events in Ferguson. It certainly does seem to be a defining moment, connecting a whole lot of puzzle pieces — militarization of police, racially unbalanced enforcement, the drug war, lack of accountability of authorities, a dysfunctional justice system — all things we’ve discussed here on a regular basis.

And from reading my Facebook news feed, it appears that it’s getting some major traction with the general public (finally). I’ve also been sadly chuckling a bit with some of the developments – progressive sites taking on the charge of fighting over-militarization as if they discovered it… and today, news that the SWAT lobby has approached Congress saying, essentially: “please don’t take away our toys – how about if we agree to better training and policies?”

I wrote a general piece of Ferguson and policing for my Facebook friends, which you can read if you’d like…

#Furguson is shaping up to be a potentially defining moment in American history, and it should be. As I’ve said before, Ferguson represents something much larger than Ferguson. It isn’t just about this one location, and it certainly isn’t just about Michael Brown.

I’ve seen the question raised: “What if it turns out that there’s compelling evidence that the shooting of Michael Brown was fully justified? Won’t that make this whole conflict all for nothing?”

Of course not.

To the people in Ferguson (and many other places), Michael Brown represents a much bigger picture.  Police in the U.S. have killed over 5,000 people since 9/11 – more than died in that terrorist attack. This fact should, at the very least, encourage us to evaluate whether there is a way to reduce that number. Sure, it may be because our society is particularly violent and there’s no apparent choice in each individual case, but shouldn’t we want to look globally at whether there are ways to develop policies and approaches to policing that reduce the likelihood of violent confrontation?

Because we’ve been doing just the opposite.  Just look at the violence of SWAT-style deployments. In the 1970′s they were used about 300 times a year, primarily for hostage situations and bank heists.  Now, it’s estimated that this policy is used 50,000 times a year in the U.S., including serving low-level drug warrants, breaking up basement poker games, and even busting barber shops. That’s right – police in military gear busting down doors and pointing guns at everyone over a barber’s license. In Ferguson, every felony warrant (which means essentially every warrant) is served by SWAT.

Add to that the proliferation of stop-and-frisks in poor, predominantly black, communities, where young black men are stopped without cause on a daily basis and patted down, treated as criminals whether they are or not. In New York, from 2002 to 2011, there were 3.8 million stop-and-frisks, 90 percent of which were black or latino.  Stop-and-frisk abuses corrode trust between the police and communities.  According to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly: “[A] large reservoir of good will was under construction when I left the Police Department in 1994. It was called community policing. But it was quickly abandoned for tough-sounding rhetoric and dubious stop-and-frisk tactics that sowed new seeds of community mistrust.”

Trust is particularly difficult if you’re black. The ACLU found that in St. Louis, black people were 18 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana charges as white people.  Yes, that’s an 18-1 ratio.

We, as a country, are not creating a climate that is conducive to establishing trust between police and their communities, particularly in poor, largely minority, areas. That’s dangerous, and potentially explosive.

And there are other reasons why #Ferguson is important, regardless of whether the Michael Brown killing was justified.

First, there was the apparent CYA approach to the information that came from authorities after the death of Michael Brown. The police would not release any details about the shooting until proper investigation had been completed, and yet without the slightest bit of investigation, they pushed forth the convenience store video of the “robbery” that wasn’t even reported by the store.

Whether intended or not, this gives a clear public impression that they will do what they can to villify the dead man, while holding on to the facts of the shooting. This makes the community much less likely to trust any information coming from authorities.

When the authorities control the information, the full appearance of transparency and accountability/verifiability are especially critical.

So yes, a big part of what’s happening in #Ferguson is that the people have lost trust in the information they’re receiving.  When people can’t trust what they’re told, they’ll believe the worst.  And why shouldn’t they?

Finally, Ferguson is important because of the atrocious, militarized approach to dealing with protest.

You have a community that already has reasons not to trust the police, and has good reason not to trust the information they’ve been given, who already feel like they are not full members of society, and now they are facing what clearly looks like an occupying army in their home.

Tone-deaf is a generous way of describing the response of authorities.

As Chris Hayes of MSNBC said “The feeling of being occupied is the opposite of the feeling of being a citizen of a democracy. It’s a crisis for American democracy.”

Now, some of my friends will bring up the fact that police must be equipped for their very dangerous jobs, and also be authorized to act to protect themselves from some very dangerous people.  And that’s true.

Being a police officer is dangerous.  Not as dangerous as being a roofer, a fisherman, a logger, a pilot, a steelworker, a garbage man, an electrical line worker, a farmer, a construction worker, or a truck driver, but still dangerous.  And sure, those police who are killed on the job are just as likely to die in a traffic accident as being killed by a bad guy, but still, it happens, and more often than any of us would like.

Here’s the concern. While it’s important that we seriously think about the safety of police officers, there is a problem with over-emphasizing the dangers. When administrators constantly repeat that officer safety is the number one priority, when you tell officers that they are in danger of being killed every time they interact with the community, when you set up policies that make officers be mistrusted by the community, when you give them military equipment  and uniforms to make them feel more like soldiers surrounded by enemies, where does that lead?  With that mindset, an officer confronting a 6’4″ 300 pound black man may actually fear for his life (which is the usual legal definition of a justified shooting). But the fear itself may not be justified. That should lead us to seriously question a system that leads to that level of fear.

In a world of community policing, the officers would know the people in their community, making both the residents and the police safer.

No, this is not about being against police officers. This is not about hating cops or thinking all cops are racists, or bloodthirsty, or corrupt, or anything else. It disturbs me that I even have to bring it up.  I have had the most amazing and wonderful relationship with police officers at Illinois State University, and my friends at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (all former or current law enforcement professionals) are an incredible force for good. There are great, unselfish police all over the country who truly care.

On the other hand, I have also had a disturbing personal experience. One time, police officers blatantly lied about me in an effort to get me fired from my job because I was aware of an action they had taken that was not fully legal. In that situation, I had a bit of an advantage – I was white, middle class, and well respected in the community.  Unfortunately, in other areas, people have had to deal with much worse. I’ve also lived in some poorer communities where I’ve seen first-hand the lack of positive interactions with the police (though I certainly can’t really experience it the same way my neighbors did).

Police officers have an extraordinary amount of power in our society (as they must). The only way that can work is if they also have an extraordinary amount of trust and support in their communities, and unimpeachable accountability for their actions.

Today, those conditions don’t exist — at least most certainly not in all communities, and as long as there are communities who are not being served properly, it’s a problem for all of us.

The job is not to dismantle the police, or weaken the police (it’s also not a left vs. right issue), but rather the job is to evaluate how policing is working in this country, to make sure that it works for everyone, and to build local trust and accountability to make the police stronger in serving their communities.

Ferguson is a wake-up call for all of us.

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