In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter if the shooting was justified. Yes, the details make a life-and-death difference for Brown and Wilson, and it will surely matter to them. But problem here is much bigger. Ferguson is about what happens when unrepresentative, majority-white law enforcement agencies police majority black communities — and the distrust they feel toward one another. It’s impossible to have a productive, cooperative relationship when those two groups see each other as adversaries. Thankfully, there’s a (painful, slow) way to change that. Here, rather than on Wilson and Brown, is where our focus should be.
With about 2.9 percent of the adult population in prison, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world (2.2 million people are in federal, state and local prisons and jails). That group shows a clear racial disparity. The Sentencing Project’s 2013 report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, “Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System,” shows that African American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males, and one out of three black males is expected to go to prison in his lifetime. Although about 12 percent of the U.S. population is black, 30 percent of those arrested for property crimes and 38 percent of those arrested for violent crimes are black.
Being overrepresented as suspects of crimes, living in poor neighborhoods, living with a history of racism in American society, facing implicit bias, and coping with aggressive policing in violence-prone neighborhoods are the harsh truths of the black experience in America. What’s more, minority and poor defendants don’t get the same quality of legal representation that their white counterparts do, helping to ensure they are convicted at a higher rate and receive stricter sentences, as David Cole adroitly describes in his book, “No Equal Justice.”
By confining our discussion to whether a white officer was racist or a black teenager deserved to be shot for attacking him, we do a disservice to these broader problems. The real issue here is that the protectors of the community, in Ferguson and elsewhere, are seen as the enemies.
It’s not an easy problem to fix. Changing racial stereotypes and attitudes requires an effort by the whole society, which is an enormous and time-consuming undertaking. In the meantime, there are ways to improve policing practices so that the minorities and cops develop better trust.
A good starting point is a department with a notorious historical reputation for treating minority members heavy handedly: mine. The Los Angeles Police Department was once known for its corruption and hostile relations with minorities, as memorialized in many Hollywood movies (think: “L.A. Confidential”). It became world famous when officers beat Rodney King. A decade later, it entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, allowing for federal supervision until the LAPD had finished reforming in the eyes of a federal judge, 13 years later.
Since King, it has come a long way in earning the trust of the city’s minorities. A telling example was the shooting death of an unarmed black man, Ezell Ford, by two LAPD officers, two days after Michael Brown died. A struggle ensued when they stopped to question him — there are conflicting accounts of exactly what happened — and the officers shot him. The Ferguson incident caused riots; Ford’s death didn’t.
The difference is that the LAPD has made a consistent, sustained effort in community policing; it has worked closely with civil rights and community leaders to prevent major social disturbances. This approach, thanks to pressure from the outside, transformed the LAPD’s relationship with the people it serves. Community complaints, changing expectations from society about how police should behave and federal oversight all helped shift the culture of the Los Angeles police. In 1991, barely 40 percent of Angelinos approved of the department’s performance; nearly 20 years later, eight out of 10 did, including 68 percent of African Americans and 76 percent of Latinos.
The lesson from Los Angeles is this: Public and political pressure has the power to transform a local agency with a deeply troubled history. Community members in Ferguson and other jurisdictions, where the police are less sympathetic to the needs of minorities, should use every civic means to push their police toward community-based policing. If that requires protesting for weeks or months and involving the federal agencies, there should be no letup in pressure until meaningful changes are seen. This is about the cops and the people they have sworn to protect and serve, not just about Wilson and Brown.