Now that the grand jury has spoken in the Michael Brown case, the country will and should engage in a renewed debate about police use of force, police militarization and authorities’ treatment of minority communities. That debate can easily degrade into unattractive shouting, as the argument between Rudy Giuliani and Michael Eric Dyson did on Sunday’s Meet the Press. Or the nation’s leaders can put more effort into enabling a discussion based on facts rather than preconceptions, which they have failed to do.
The situation in Ferguson has raised broader issues than the training and conduct of police in the St. Louis area, and it demands a broader response. Top on the list must be informing the national debate on police use of force with reliable figures. Congress in 1994 told the Justice Department to collect and publish national numbers on the excessive use of force, but federal officials have never managed to do it. Those numbers that are available are uninformative for various reasons. Congress should fix this problem. Along the way, lawmakers could review what sort of military hardware the Pentagon is transferring to local cops and why.
The police should also collect much more information in the form of video evidence from police body cameras, devices that should be much higher than MRAPs and body armor on the list of items the federal government encourages local police departments to use.
Police departments should quickly equip officers to wear live cameras on their uniforms in every reasonable circumstance. Congress should also do more to encourage adoption of the technology. Various studies and anecdotal reports have found that, though far from a panacea, this technology has a variety of potential benefits. Complaints of police mistreatment, for example, have gone down after cops began wearing the devices. We don’t know if Michael Brown would be alive today if Ferguson police had to wear cameras. But having them in place almost certainly would have helped.
Making these changes wouldn’t immediately bridge the division that the unrest in Ferguson and other racially charged controversies have exposed. But they would help Americans understand what is — and isn’t — happening.