Policing – the way forward

Boston Police - Special Operations Officer
Boston Police – Special Operations Officer

These recent stories simply are heartbreaking. First to make national news was Ferguson, Mo. Police officer Darren Wilson shot to death an unarmed teenager Michael Brown. A grand jury declined to indict the officer. Thank goodness, he resigned from the department.

Then we heard about a Staten Island officer acquitted in the choke-holding death of an overweight, middle-age, unarmed black for selling cigarettes on the street. Actually, we got to see this on videotape. A United Nations panel of human rights expects expressed shock that the officer, again, wasn’t indicted.

There’s been even more news about police conduct. An 18-month Justice Department study of policing in Cleveland found a pattern of cruelty and routine violation of citizens’ constitutional rights.

In his column this Friday, the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson cites a pervasive pattern of racism that persists throughout the country and infects police departments. Indeed, dating back generations, official reports have lamented the great racial divide in America. This divide can been seen in housing patterns, employment, segregated schools. As the Koerner Commission might have put it today, we remain two nations, separate and unequal.

Policing just happens sometimes to illustrate the worst side of that racial divide. But another side greatly complicates the picture. These recent stories brought to mind my own experience. I got to ride one night with a decorated Memphis police officer almost 20 years ago. I had joined two Fort Wayne officers to get a close look at the Memphis model program for officers encounters with mentally ill persons.

After a banquet honoring a number of Memphis officers, I climb into Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) member Tony Mullins’s patrol car. Shaved bald, husky, wearing black gloves, Officer Mullins was no cop I ever wanted to encounter in a dark alley. But what I witnessed that evening was a highly trained officer who handled those people on the street late at night with extreme patience. He didn’t yell at citizens. He didn’t order them to go home. Rather, his conversations involved his mostly listening to the person.

Like police departments throughout the country, Fort Wayne and the country departments here adopted the Memphis model of policing. Since then, police have made far fewer arrests of mentally ill persons. The CIT here had been such a model that our officers are now invited to instruct other departments on this highly successful form of policing.

As I suggested, the tragic encounters recently in the news represent part of the story about how police in this country treat citizens, particularly minorities. But CIT programs point the way to more just and effective policing everywhere. First, CIT officers are carefully screened even before they can start training. They receive hours and hours of additional classroom and field work. Then they’re supervised in the early days they’re formally regarded as CIT officers.

To be sure, part of the problem in many departments is racial prejudice among officers. How to deal with that when so much of the general population harbors those feelings? Surely for starters, you can’t have a department that doesn’t reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the community. Ferguson, Missouri, has only a handful of minority police officers out of a force or more than 50. This is just asking for tragedy. Beyond that, I hope community leaders, in light of the recent news, would examine the experience of towns and cities that have excellent records of police-community relations.

The good news is that these highly-publicized tragic encounters between police and citizens have sparked calls for reform from President Obama and other political leaders. Nobody can be proud of the tragedies, least of all police.

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A death in Ferguson

Michael Brown, Jr.
Michael Brown, Jr.

I have no idea whether Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson should be found criminally liable in the August 9 shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

I felt Wilson’s newly released testimony to the grand jury confusing. Eyewitness testimony was conflicting. The tragic encounter didn’t make any sense. For example, why in the world did Wilson need to get off 12 shots at close range before he no longer felt threatened by his suspect?

Consider: This all began when Officer Wilson ordered Brown to walk on the sidewalk, not in the middle of the street. So here jaywalking turned into a capital offense.

Beyond that, county prosecutor Bob McCulloch presented the case to the jury in a fashion that didn’t follow any procedure I’m familiar with. Rather than laying out the case for, say an indictment on manslaughter, McCulloch recited a case both for and against an indictment. He then left it to jurors to draw their own conclusions.

It doesn’t help ordinary citizens feel justice was done that McCulloch has a reputation for protecting police officers. Further, his police officer father once shot to death a black suspect. It also seems peculiar that it took months for the grand jury to reach a decision to not indict.

At his conference following the grand jury’s decision, McCulloch blamed the press for making a national story out of the case.

This was an extremely volatile case. Given McCulloch’s reputation and the national interest, he should have stepped aside and let the Missouri governor appoint a special prosecutor.

Then you have the investigation by the local police. From the news accounts, it appears so amateurish. Here’s Officer Wilson bagging his own pistol. Then local officials left Brown’s uncovered body lie in the street for hours.

Also puzzling, the investigator of the scene didn’t take measurements or conduct even the most routine examination of the police vehicle. Nor did the police tape record interviews they conducted with Officer Wilson. An odd procedure, to say the least.

It’s not that police never get charged for shooting a citizen. One study over seven years found 41 officers charged with murder or manslaughter. During the same period, researchers found that officers had been exonerated in nearly 3,000 shooting deaths.

For years, studies have noted that police are 10 times more likely to stop black male teens than white male teenagers. The Ferguson case provides yet the latest tragic glimpse at
a racial chasm in this country. Indeed, the demonstrations in Ferguson and around the country that followed the grand jury’s decision remind us that the very perception of injustice is not all that different from injustice itself.

I hope outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder does open a federal investigation of the case. Maybe that would quell some of the anger and show everyone that we really can expect and find justice when local officials fall short.

There are some powerful takeaway lessons from Ferguson. First, let’s be highly selective before pinning a police badge on a person. Then let’s see that their training meets national standards. Let’s see that the racial and ethnic makeup of the department reflects the community – unlike Ferguson.

For the rest of us, let’s get on about the business of championing justice. Too many resources have been wasted. Too many lives have been ruined. Too many lives have been needlessly lost. Michael Brown surely is one.

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A death in Missouri

Michael Brown, Jr.
Michael Brown, Jr.

I doubt we’ll ever know the full story of how it happened that the Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson came to shoot and kill Michael Brown Jr. in broad daylight on a street in Ferguson, Mo.

The shooting August 9 set off a week of demonstrations. Some protestors threw bottles and broke store windows. Some looted. Others called for peace and brought food and water to the demonstrators. Many demanded the prosecutor indict Officer Wilson for murder. Meantime, Michael Brown’s funeral drew thousands to the church. That included the nationally known Rev. Al Sharpton. He gave the eulogy.

For the rest of the country, the shooting opened an old, festering wound about how white police treat black citizens. It’s not common for an officer to shoot and kill a citizen, especially one who, like Brown, is unarmed. Yet in so many communities across the country relations between police and black citizens remain sensitive if not downright hostile.

Black citizens don’t need sociologists who study this stuff to tell them that blacks are more likely to end up with longer prison terms than whites for virtually the same drug-related offenses. Across the board, blacks in most communities and cities are more often
charged with traffic and other misdemeanors. Black citizens understand that two standards in the justice system apply: One for whites and the other, more strict, for minorities.

Then there’s Ferguson, Mo., one of many seemingly thriving St. Louis suburbs. You’d think that in a town that’s two-thirds black, the powers that be would see to it that the police force has a similar make-up of blacks. But of the 53 officers on the force, only three are black. One of them has an administrative job with the department.

Likewise, Ferguson’s mayor is white; nearly all members of the city council are white.

As things stand now, a grand jury will not take up the shooting of Michael Brown until October. I imagine that by week’s end the protestors from outside Ferguson will have gone home. The preachers will find a new inspiration. The columnists and editorial writers will take up other causes. Like the Trayvon Martin shooting death by a neighborhood watchman in Florida, this tragedy probably will fade and the national focus will shift once more.

Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that the death of Michael Brown will not be forgotten. I want to believe that the calls for justice will echo throughout the land. Young Brown’s story did gain national attention. Just today, the September 1 issue of The New Yorker arrived in the mail. The cover portrays images of people raising their hands in a graphic reflection of Ferguson demonstrators who raised their hands with the message: “Don’t shoot.”

A beginning? We’ll see.

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