The fallout from Ferguson

The short-term verdict may be in, but just like those ripples that fan out when you throw a stone into a deep, still pond, the lasting repercussions of the Ferguson debacle are only just starting to be felt.

As important as it will likely turn out to be, this inevitable incident was the culmination of years of trying to put a lid on a problem instead of making an effort to mitigate it. And that’s always a recipe for disaster because this is a tale of the people charged with protecting us falling prey to fear and hate and then doing just the opposite.

fergusonThe sad truth is, without diminishing it in any way, this story is about so much more than the death of Michael Brown which, ironically, will serve to give his too-short life far more meaning than it might’ve otherwise had.

Please allow me to explain:

1. This isn’t over

The U. S. Attorney’s office has made it clear that they will be examining every aspect of the Ferguson Police Department from a civil rights perspective. Given their consistent poor judgment and the unforgettable images of a white American police force as an occupying army, the federal folks will make it a point to make an example of Ferguson, Missouri.

It certainly won’t happen overnight, but I wouldn’t rule out a federal takeover of that police department.

2. But Darren Wilson’s and Police Chief Thomas Jackson’s careers are over

Human nature dictates that, rather than examine our own role in a sad series of events, we’d rather search for scapegoats instead.

Wilson was nothing more than a cog in a machine that became far bigger than any of its component parts. The problem is, whether we like it or not, innocent or guilty, sometimes we have history thrust upon us. The Ferguson Police Department will not be able to recover as long as he’s there so, under the guise of a resignation, Wilson will be gone.

Ah! But if someone is more culpable than their minions it has to be the Chief. Throw in his capacity to make blisteringly bad decisions, and his departure is as foregone a conclusion as I’ve ever seen.

3. The police will demilitarize

In fact, many of them are already attempting to return their MRAPs and other surplus equipment to the Pentagon, though it appears to be a virtually impossible feat.

Author Radley Balko was indeed prophetic when he warned us that, once police acquired that weaponry, they would put it to use. And given the general lack of any internal terrorist threat, they would likely use it against the very people they’ve sworn to protect.

So now, police chiefs, mayors, and even school districts, terrified of the monster they so eagerly created but can’t control, are trying to divest themselves of these “tools” and the temptation that comes along with having them as fast as they possibly can.

The slightest possibility of a Ferguson repeat in their jurisdiction is keeping them wide awake at night so, thankfully, the militarization tide has turned. The police should always be an extension of the people and not the military.

4. A comeback for Constitutional rights

As is almost always the case when tragedy strikes this country (except for school shootings, of course) the pendulum starts moving towards one or the other extreme. A perfect example of this phenomenon is our post 9/11 fright fest which made matters much worse than the actual attack itself.

Our clarion call seemed to be, “We will protect our freedom by destroying our freedoms!,” and suddenly the police were the beneficiaries of all sorts of new authority. But whenever one group gains that kind of leverage at the expense of another, it never works out because, without the necessary checks and balances, the suddenly more powerful faction typically turns on the very people who provided that new authority in the first place.

So now, especially in light of Ferguson, that slow erosion of our constitutional rights will start to reverse.

5. Police departments will make more of an effort to hire minorities

In order for Democracy to truly flourish, the people who purport to represent us or act on our behalf should actually well…represent us! We humans tend to be tribal by nature and, left to our own monochromatic devices, we quickly descend into an us versus them bunker mentality. But that’s far less likely to happen when you regularly work alongside people of color.

Not only that, but unless you’ve walked that proverbial mile in those Hispanic or black shoes, you can’t possibly understand their experience. When you combine that lack of empathy with a military mindset and the inherent imbalance of the police/citizen relationship, something like Ferguson, Missouri was bound to happen.

And please don’t give me that, “Do municipal snowplow drivers have to look like us too?” bleep because I can’t remember the last time a snowplow driver pulled anyone over or pointed a gun at me.

The best police chiefs know that the best defense against this dire dynamic is a police force that mirrors the community they serve.

6. Community policing is the only thing that really works

The police can’t possibly resolve the underlying inequities that lead to so many of our social ills because no single group wields that kind of power. That’s gonna take all of us. But with that synthesis still pretty far off on the horizon, the next best thing is to engage your citizenry because it’s much more difficult to be adversarial with someone who’s part of the process.

The problem police departments generally have with that interesting notion is that it levels the playing field which can be a nerve wracking proposition.

But it works and the folks in Kane County, Illinois need look no further than the Sheriff and the Aurora and Elgin police departments for proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Sheriff Pat Perez and Chiefs Greg Thomas and Jeff Swoboda (respectively) have had amazing success in getting their constituents to buy into that fascinating form of partnership.

In fact, it’s worked so well in Aurora that Illinois’ second largest city didn’t have a single murder in 2013! Of course, some of that’s luck and some of it’s the capacity to keep the really bad guys off the street, but, in a city of over 200,000, most of it should be credited to community policing.

But the best thing about that effort is, as Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon regularly reminds us, when you’re engaged, the possibility of redemption is exponentially greater and redemption actually solves the problem. It’s much harder to dismiss your brothers and sisters when you’ve made the effort to look them in the eye.

5 thoughts on “The fallout from Ferguson

  1. When you mean “Constitutional Rights,”, does your definition include the “right’ of the press to incite a lynch-mob mentality, and the “right’ of that criminal element which hides under the guise of “demonstrators” to loot and burn businesses?

    There was a lot of sqawking from some of these people about the conclusion reached by the Grand Jury’s long and intensive investigation of this case. Some of these critics do not understand, or REFUSE to understand, the role of the Grand Jury in investigating the circumstances surrounding such an incident. Some even state that the case should have gone DIRECTLY to trial; included among those were representatives of the NAACP. As I remember, that organization had its origins
    in its determination to end “lynch-law” justice. Yet, that is what they advocate in by-passing a Grand
    Jury investigation.

    Why is there a greater police presence in neighborhoods like that of Ferguson? Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani explained it best on a TV political show last Sunday morning: “More police are assigned to those areas because that’s where the most crime occurs.” It’s kind of like the reply of old-time bank robber Willie Sutton when asked why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.”

    And, how to you get more ethnic diversity in a police force if few people of ethnic minorities apply for those jobs? They can’t be forcibly “drafted” into the jobs. Police work is a dangerous job, and it
    takes special people to willingly take it on, knowing full well that when they leave home in the morning, they may never return to it that night.

    • Observer, By Constitutional rights I mean the real right to refuse a search during a traffic stop – especially for minorities – and the right to keep the NSA from listening to my cell phone conversations!

      Second, I never talked about the grand jury OR the lack of indictment, I simply, as I often do, made some predictions. The federal civil rights case is going to be the real investigation anyway.

      Again, I never made any claims about police presence prior to Michael Browns death. I talked about the Ferguson police acting like an occupying army which was a very poor decision that made the situation much worse.

      Lastly, you get a more diverse police force by actively seeking out minority candidates just as large corporations do. And the best example is the Elgin PD! With that city being 44 percent Hispanic, they are serious about finding and hiring Hispanic officers. And how do you know they aren’t already applying to the smaller police departments and not getting hired!


  2. Jeff, you’re probably right that the feds will want to make some headlines and make an example of Ferguson. Yes, Ferguson PD made a number of mistakes, including asking for help from their neighbors who had the M-raps and other equipment they didn’t have. Remember, there was at least one cop relieved of duty and sent home (I think he was from St. Anne PD?) for raising his rifle and being verbally combative with protestors.

    I agree also with not getting into the grand jury, but I’m not sure the federal case IS going to be “the real investigation”. Now that more of the grand jury testimony is coming out, it’s apparent that there were some witnesses who supported Wilson’s account. I wonder if they’ll be willing to say the same things to the feds, or if the violence will intimidate them into changing their story, or cause them to be unavailable for the next investigation. I’d certainly think twice about being involved.

    Yes, Wilson will be leaving Ferguson PD and probably will need to move far away from the area because he and his family have big bull-eyes on their backs. With all the vitriol and accusations being thrown around, even by some of the “peaceful” protestors, the violent criminal element will be further encouraged. Loot a store. Burn down a building that MAY be empty (or maybe not). Shoot a cop. There are people there right now who wouldn’t hesitate. For the record, I found his testimony compelling and I believed him. I believe he was doing his job, and ended up faced with a very large young adult (18 – he can vote, buy tobacco, enlist in the military and defend our country) who tried to take his gun. I don’t care if he was white, black, red, brown, purple, green, or rainbow colors, this was a large young man using his size to intimidate. We saw that on video from the convenience store. I don’t think we’ll ever know why he acted in a way his mom said was so out of character, but it’s clear on the video.

    My biggest area of agreement is in minority recruitment. We ABSOLUTELY need the police to reflect the community. Observer is right, we can’t draft them. The big question is how do we get them to apply? I think the minority community itself, thru neighborhood groups, churches, etc. need to step up and encourage young minority kids to pursue careers in public service, act as mentors to help them thru the process and bring them to the attention of the police recruiters. After all, you are saying the answer is COMMUNITY policing. So the community needs to get involved in recruiting the police officers.

    I’ll finish with 2 slight chuckles.

    1. I also am very proud of the Aurora PD. I think they do an outstanding job — but I hope they give back the MRAP THEY have.

    2. I’m more worried about Google et al scanning all my e-mails and tracking everywhere I go on the web than I am about the NSA. Imagine the shame if it became public that I’m a regular viewer of!

  3. Jeff,

    Please understand, I’m not saying the Feds will reexamine the Wilson indictment (or lack of one) issue, I’m saying the entire department will be under the microscope for years of civil rights violations.

    I purposely did not wade into the Wilson/Smith dynamic because, though any such death diminishes all of us, it will simply be a catalyst for far greater changes. Per our biggest area of agreement:


  4. Well, officer Wilson HAS resigned, and most likely WILL move away to protect his life and his family. What a shame. Does this make it unsafe for ANY police officer to do his duty? How will this situation encourage anyone to enter police work as a profession?

    Do you think ANY decision from the Ferguson Grand Jury would have affected the outcome?
    Many of those from out-of-town were intent on mayhem, and if the Grand Jury would have indicted officer Wilson, riots and store looting and burning may have happened in “celebration,” instead
    of “protest.” Why are those troublemakers still there? The locals want them to LEAVE, but so long as the reporters and TV cameras are also there, so will they continue their publicity circus. What is the personal stake of Al Sharpton in what happened in Ferguson?

    Now, a similar Grand Jury decision in New York is the origin of problems there. The TRUTH is not what matters, it is what a certain element in the “community” and the media want THEIR version of “truth” to be. It’s about “feelings” and “appearance,” not about EVIDENCE.

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