Ferguson — After the Grand Jury
Now that the Grand Jury in Ferguson has declined to indict Officer Wilson and after an ugly night of violence in reaction, it might be time to think beyond the next the next 24 hours. Fox News, CNN and the rest of the massive media contingent that has descended on Ferguson will depart, leaving people there and across the country to debate what sort of policy measures or steps might be taken to avoid another Ferguson. With the 24 hour coverage and the competing voices of various “experts” one wonders if there is anything about the situation that has not already been said. With that in mind, there are a couple brief but important points that might be helpful.
The media Coverage — It was relatively easy to predict the coverage this story would receive by major national news outlets. Those with a right wing bent quickly characterized the story as good cop — bad suspect. Those from the left immediately cast the story in the context of white police officer — black suspect. It makes me long for the days of class news pros like Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley, reporting the news rather than shouting over each other providing more noise than insight. Also, fact checking seems to be a thing of the past. Dorian Johnson, the man with Michael Brown during the robbery just prior to the shooting, is quickly identified as an “eyewitness to the shooting” and his account is repeated endlessly taking root in the narrative of young black male murdered by the police. As the facts evolved, it appears that Johnson’s account, as might be expected, was at least self-serving and moving close to flat out falsification. Yet his interview remained on the CNN website as “Eyewitness Account” as though Johnson was a bystander to the incident rather than a participant.
Freedom of the press is absolutely essential in a free society. St. Louis prosecutor McCullough has received a lot of criticism for his comments on Ferguson press coverage but my guess is the majority of Americans agreed with him. At times, it appeared the press coverage was more the story than the activity on the ground.
Failure to Protect the Community — It is hard to fathom that with the hour of the announcement of Grand Jury action known well beforehand and National Guard Troops mobilized and ready to go, a crowd estimated at 400-500 is allowed to burn and loot the Ferguson business district. Simply placing the Guardsmen in front of businesses would have deterred those in the crowd bent on violence. Ferguson is a small town with a small business district and would have been relatively easy to secure. Despite requests from the Mayor, the decision to keep the Guard in their Barracks as the town burned is one that begs for some accountability. If this was a decision made by the Governor, the state of Missouri needs to step up and make these business owners whole. Those responsible should join Ferguson residents now without jobs in the unemployment line.
Lack of Knowledge on Police Force — The comments by both news people and citizens reflect a disturbing lack of understanding on the legal boundaries for police use of force. In all the coverage, even the discussions among so-called police experts, not once was there an explanation of Tennessee Vs. Garner or Conner vs. Graham, the two Supreme Court decisions which spell out the legalities of police force. Part of the blame is lousy public education in Civics and Government. I teach college students in a variety of programs and the overwhelming majority of them have never read the U. S. Constitution. Unfortunately, for most Americans, the Fourth Amendment, the basis for police use of force, is less familiar than the latest happenings of the Kardasians.
Police Departments have some responsibility in this regard. We have done a terrible job of educating the public on police force issues and we ought to make a major effort to change that.
Criminal Justice Changes — There are two reforms being discussed which I believe could make a real difference. The first is use of outside investigations on police shootings and the second is mandatory reporting on police use of force.
On the issue of investigations of police shootings, the time is long past that the public trusts the police to investigate themselves. Citizen Review Panels, like the one started in Cincinnati after the 2001 riots, play a major role in gaining the trust of the community. These panels operate in different fashions but their major job is to oversee and guarantee the integrity of police force investigations. These type of Citizen Review Panels now exist in some form in many major cities. Extending their reach to the majority of small police departments, like Ferguson, will be a challenge but one police leaders should embrace.
The issue of outside prosecutors to handle police shootings is also difficult. Prosecutors, like police leaders before them, will bristle at the idea that they are unable to handle police force cases. However, the issue is public trust. It is pretty clear that many Americans, particularly minority communities, view local police and prosecutors as members of the same professional family, and these citizens view prosecutors as clearly biased in favor of the police. Bringing in special prosecutors in police force cases will undercut that assumption and provide a higher level of community trust in these cases.
Reporting on police force cases is also an area ripe for reform. Underlying most of the concern in these instances (white officer-black suspect) is the deep-rooted belief that the police are more likely to use force on African-Americans than on other citizens. Statistics from the criminal justice system and from those police agencies that collect and report this data clearly show differences, but provide little insight into the underlying factors. Are African-Americans killed by police at a higher rate than whites? We simply do not know because police are not required to report these deaths to either state nor Federal authorities. Local police authorities will cringe at the cost of collecting and reporting this information but too bad. We are trying to deal with a problem we have very little knowledge of and collecting and analyzing this data is the first and most important step.
While the Grand Jury chapter of the Ferguson case is history, the discussion on what to do next is just beginning. I am optimistic that Americans will find a way forward and that the mistrust and anger that have separated police from some of their communities will slowly wither away.
Howard Rahtz is a retired Cincinnati Police Captain and author of the book Understanding Police Use of Force.