Eroding Trust On Both Sides Now

There was rioting in Ferguson, Missouri last night after a prosecuting attorney announced that a grand jury had declined to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager.

The prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, said that the racially mixed grand jury had met on more than two dozen occasions over three months to hear the testimony of more than 60 witnesses.  He said the members of the grand jury were the only people to have heard all of the evidence and to have weighed the credibility of every witness, and added that they took their job seriously and “poured their hearts and soul into this process.” 

Shortly after the verdict was announced the police officer’s grand jury testimony was released.  According to the Associated Press report, Wilson said he had seen Brown walking with a handful of cigars, which he connected to an earlier report of a convenience store robbery.  Wilson testified to an escalating confrontation in which Brown punched Wilson while Wilson sat in his patrol car, Wilson drew his gun, the two struggled, Brown ran away, Wilson gave chase, Brown turned to face the policeman, and ultimately Wilson fired the fatal shots.

Rioting began almost immediately after the no-indictment decision was announced, with crowds setting fire to vehicles and buildings and looting local businesses.  Police fired tear gas and made numerous arrests.  President Obama quite properly appealed for calm and noted that the United States is a nation of laws and the grand jury was the institution charged with deciding whether the officer should be charged with a state-law crime.

Of course, both the prosecutor and the President are right:  only the members of the grand jury heard all of the evidence and its decision must inevitably be accepted.  Similarly, no rational person doubts that serving as a police officer is a difficult, dangerous job that requires split-second decision-making in moments of great stress.  Still, we can fairly question why so many deadly police shootings happen in our country — in Cleveland, for example, on this past Saturday afternoon, a rookie police officer fatally shot a 12-year-old African-American boy who was holding a pellet gun — and whether officers are too quick to use deadly force.  In too many of our communities, there seems to be an us versus them mentality on both sides of the police-civilian divide that makes these fatal confrontations much, much too likely to occur.

We Are Not Sheep To Be Herded

Fortunately, things seemed to calm down last night in Ferguson, Missouri, where people have been protesting the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager Saturday night.  A change in police tactics — which basically avoided the shows of overwhelming force police had exhibited on prior nights — seems to have eased tensions.

The Ferguson situation raises serious questions about the “militarization” of police forces and their responses to protests.  That issue, in turn, raises bigger questions about police accountability and whether officers have an unnecessarily confrontational “us vs. them” attitude that promotes clashes with a citizenry that is simply trying to exercise its constitutional right to assemble and protest.

ABC News image of police in FergusonThe weaponry police displayed in Ferguson — armored vehicles, army-style helmets and uniforms and tactical equipment, even sharpshooters — was astonishing.  (Why the need for sharpshooters in these circumstances?  Who were they targeting?)  It’s legitimate to ask why municipal police need such equipment in the first place, and politicians from across the political spectrum are doing so.  Separate and apart from the cost of purchasing and maintaining such equipment in times when many cities are strapped for cash, the reality is that once such equipment is acquired the impulse to deploy it will become irresistible.  In Ferguson, it seems pretty clear that the use of the military equipment, tear gas, and rubber bullets unnecessarily fanned the flames.

Police have a tough job, and the vast majority of Americans understand and support them as they perform it.  The police role, however, is a limited one — to enforce laws and apprehend criminals.  When a protest occurs, police of course may properly arrest anyone who throws a brick through a window or who assaults a police officer.  But police are public servants, and when there is a question about whether police have overstepped their authority by engaging in improper use of lethal force, as in this case, citizens have every right to question, and protest, and take photographs of police as they perform their jobs.  When police are arresting journalists in a McDonald’s, tear-gassing news crews, and firing rubber bullets randomly to try to disperse crowds, as happened in Ferguson, it’s fair to conclude that police have overstepped their role

We are not sheep to be herded, and police officials need to understand that.  Law enforcement authorities must respect the fact that Americans have the right to protest and question police activities.  I’m hoping that the Ferguson situation causes municipal authorities across the country to reassess their need for military equipment and their tactics when protests occur.