No American should ever have to face the heavy-handed police response that has bludgeoned the citizens of Ferguson, Mo., and the journalists covering them over the past several days. Ferguson and St. Louis County police have fired tear gas at peaceful protesters and people standing in their own back yards, and have confronted nonviolent demonstrations with riot gear and armored personnel carriers. On Wednesday night, St. Louis County police arrested local alderman Antonio French, as well as The Post’s Wesley Lowery and the Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly. The situation, simply put, is out of control. But the root causes of the local police actions go way beyond Ferguson, and even partly fixing them will take not only a thorough investigation of Michael Brown’s death, but also a broader change in how police operate around the country.
First, the investigation has to be handed over to actually competent authorities. It took five days for police to interview Dorrin Johnson, the friend of Brown who was walking with him when he was cut down, even though Johnson had been interviewed by numerous media outlets, including MSNBC, CBC and local St. Louis media. St. Louis County police originally decided not to interview him on the grounds that he was running away when the shooting happened. (As if we’re supposed to do something else when a police officer shoots our friend?) Never mind that Johnson’s claim — that Brown ran away after the police officer tried to pull him into his squad car — is far more credible than the current St. Louis police narrative that Brown, an honor student with no criminal record and a good reputation, would randomly decide to take an officer’s gun, then suddenly give up. That the St. Louis County police have stuck to this unlikely narrative tells you all you need to know about their partiality in this case.
Second, police in Ferguson and elsewhere need to remember whom they are serving. Like so many other departments across the country, the St. Louis PD refuses to confront the worst about its own people, while believing the worst about the people they are supposed to protect. We see this play out time and again around the country. Eric Garner is confronted by New York police for ostensibly selling unmarked cigarettes, and then is choked to death. John Crawford is shot to death by Beavercreek, Ohio, police outside a Wal-Mart while holding a toy gun for his child. And on a broader level, as my colleague Radley Balko has shown for years, police have continued to default more and more to the use of force, and to acquire tanks and heavy armor and weaponry that seem to ensure that the surrounding community will attack them with weapons normally found in war zones. (Though after the pictures and events of the past week, one could be forgiven for thinking Ferguson was now a war zone.) In addition, if Ferguson residents demand that the name of the police officer (i.e. a public employee) who shot Brown be released, then the Ferguson police should stop hiding him from accountability.
Third, it should be clear by now that most local police departments’ strategies of responding to protests with intimidating force are like throwing gasoline on a fire. As Balko notes in a post Thursday and in his recent book, it has been clear for decades that “an intimidating police presence didn’t prevent confrontation, it invited it.” “Less reactionary” police presences have generally been most successful at dealing with such protests. Even military veterans, who, unlike police officers, are generally supposed to protect themselves before civilians, have criticized the Ferguson police presence:
For veterans of the wars that the Ferguson protests so closely resemble, the police response has appeared to be not only heavy-handed but out of step with the most effective ways for both law enforcement and military personnel to respond to demonstrations.
“You see the police are standing online with bulletproof vests and rifles pointed at peoples chests,” said Jason Fritz, a former Army officer and an international policing operations analyst. “That’s not controlling the crowd, that’s intimidating them.”
Fourth, Ferguson is just the latest evidence that we need to seriously reevaluate how America’s criminal justice system treats minorities. As Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wrote in Time on Thursday, “Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them. … Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention. Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth.” Garner and Crawford were just two of countless minority victims of out-of-control police officers. Not only do the Ferguson and St. Louis County police both have long records of trouble with racial sensitivity, to put it mildly, but as this Washington Post chart shows, “the vast majority of cities have a police presence that is a lot whiter than their population.”
Late Thursday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced that the state highway patrol would take over security in Ferguson. Early reports suggest they’d taken several of the above suggestions to heart, particularly in backing off of protesters.
Police presence light compared to during yesterday protest. Only seeing cruisers. No riot gear or big vehicles pic.twitter.com/kec3UCBOJy
— Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) August 14, 2014
I’ve been here since Monday afternoon. At no point have officers mixed/mingled/chatted with protesters – until tonight.
— Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) August 14, 2014
But most of these problems exist around the country, and it will take a national change to prevent the next Ferguson.