Some Comments on Ferguson

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Like most American, I’ve watched events unfold in Ferguson, MO.  Unfortunately, based on experience in Cincinnati and other cities that have suffered similar unrest, the problems are likely to worsen before things improve.  Some thoughts on the situation in no particular order —

Local authorities Overwhelmed by Events ––  Ferguson is a small city of just over 20,000 people with a police department of 50 some officers.  Neither the Chief nor his staff have the training, experience or resources to deal with the situation.  Ferguson has about 2-3 homicides each year.  A web search was unable to find any previous police shootings in Ferguson.  The response to the civil disorder was haphazard, lacked command direction and officers were put in the middle of this chaotic storm with no apparent direction or ongoing supervision. Exhibit A is the now famous videotaped arrest of Washington Post reporters at the local McDonalds.  The officers involved clearly had little idea of what they were doing other than “clearing the restaurant.”  Prior to deploying these officers, there should have been some briefing (Roll Call) outlining their responsibilities, particularly regarding media with assurance that supervision would available as unforeseen problems arise.

Information on the shooting and the subsequent investigation has been dribbled out with no clear indication of who is actually responsible for the investigation.  The information vacuum has been filled by rumor and media speculation that has only fanned the unrest.

Diversity and Police Agencies — Much has been made of the lack of diversity on the Ferguson Police Department. Reports say only three of the 50 Ferguson officers are African-American, in a community that is 60% African-American.  A lot of folks around the country are clucking their tongues  in shock but in fact, this lack of diversity is a problem hardly limited to police departments. Look around your own place of employment.  How diverse is it really? I’ve spent a lot of time in business circles and usually felt the police department where I worked was far more diverse than those organizations.

The Chief in Ferguson, responding to this criticism, said they were having trouble attracting black applicants, that mistrust of police was a major issue.  There are steps to be taken.  Court Consent Decrees can mandate a certain percentage of black officers in new hiring.  In Cincinnati, a Consent Decree dating to the 1970’s mandated that one-third of every recruit class had to be African-American.  As older white officers retired over the years, the department now looks close to one-third African-American.

After the 2001 riots, we changed our recruiting pitch in an attempt to increase the number of black applicants.  Instead of recruiting material that focused on the excitement of policing, it emphasized working in the community and being a difference maker.  The approach was a clear success.

Diversity in police departments is an absolute mission essential and should be high on the list of things to do now in Ferguson.

A Fractured Police Department — What would be your guess about the morale in the Ferguson Police Department? In the months ahead, as the investigation proceeds and the wheels of the justice turn, the police officers in Ferguson will continue to be depicted by many as racist incompetents uncaring about the community.  Some of them will shut down, doing only the bare minimum and avoiding actions that would put them and their families at risk.  If history is any guide, crime in Ferguson will jump as the police withdraw.

Media —I am not in the camp that will blame the media for nearly everything that went wrong in Ferguson.  Freedom of the press is essential and that freedom needs to be zealously guarded.  That is not to say the media approach here is beyond criticism.  A couple examples — The young man with Michael Brown has described the shooting in vivid detail and his interview has been repeatedly shown and referenced as an eye-witness depiction of the event. Even after video evidence of this man’s participation in a robbery only moments prior to the shooting, his video even now remains on the CNN website with the title “Michael Brown’s friend describes the shooting” as though this is an accurate account of the event.

A second point — All the interviews with those who knew Mr. Brown, are, as would be expected, uniformly positive.  A former teacher describes him as a “gentle giant.”  Given the drumbeat of these stories, one wonders what the odds are that the police officer involved will receive a fair hearing, particularly when “Justice” is now defined as murder charges against him.

It has been noted that Officer Wilson has worked for four years in Ferguson. It is interesting that in that time, he has not had a single citizen complaint. During his tenure, he has handled hundreds of situations similar to this incident.  Something different happened here and that will be the focus of this investigation.  The easy labeling of this guy as a racist cop is unfair and without foundation.

The Criminal Justice system — The event highlights an appalling lack of knowledge about the legal and constitutional issues in police use of force.  Mr. Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the  family, has repeatedly referred to Michael Brown’s shooting as an “execution,’ joining other voices in demanding the officer’s arrest for murder.  Mr. Crump may have been absent during constitutional law class, but Officer Wilson is entitled, like every other American, to due process.  That includes an investigation into this event that is still pending.  Once the facts are determined, this case will be go to a Grand Jury for possible charges.  The primary Supreme Court ruling on police use of deadly force, Tennessee vs. Garner, states that the use of deadly force must be objectively reasonable to a police officer facing the situation at the instant the force is used.

A Difficult Recovery — In the next few weeks, CNN, Fox News and those from across the country who have descended on Ferguson, will leave.  In the aftermath, the citizens of Ferguson and its police department will be left to repair the damage.  It will be a long and costly process.  The costs will include middle-class flight from the city, a business district in ruins, an increase in crime and a ruptured relationship  between the community and its police department.  That damage will take years to repair. There is some history to guide this process and the hope is that the people of Ferguson can work together to build a level of trust that will overcome the bitterness of this event.

 

Howard Rahtz is a retired Cincinnati Police Captain and author of the book Understanding Police Use of Force.