Lessons from Ferguson

It’s time to reform police tactics and trainings, and how we investigate officer-involved shootings

Let’s start with the tragedy: Ferguson police’s killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Under no circumstances can we imagine a situation in which death is an appropriate penalty for jaywalking or even, if the police account is to be believed, assaulting an officer. The shooting of Brown is unconscionable. It should be fully investigated by outside agencies—not the Ferguson Police Department or the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office—and full transparency must occur if any sort of law-enforcement trust is to be regained.

But in addition to the killing of Brown (and the disrespect with which his death was treated by Ferguson police, including allowing his body to lie in the street for hours and the release of a video that was irrelevant to the shooting), there are other issues raised by what’s happened in this St. Louis suburb.

Brown was one of an average 400 Americans who are killed by local police departments every year. The incidence of police shooting suspects—and bystanders—is simply unacceptable. It demands that we examine “use of force” policies, police training and civilian-review boards throughout the United States.

The situation in Ferguson itself also needs to be publicly scrutinized. St. Louis County’s lengthy history of both de facto segregation and also police abuse of power must be investigated. Ferguson’s recent history of using fines from traffic and misdemeanor convictions as a major source of city funding, as well as a system that prevents full civic engagement by black voters, also cannot continue.

And let’s not forget the issue that caused gasps from so many of us as we watched live feeds and news coverage: the use of military hardware and tactics on American citizens who were engaging, up to the point of intervention by the police, in nonviolent protest.

Under no circumstances can we imagine a situation in which armored vehicles with machine-gun turrets are necessary for local policing.

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri has pledged to hold congressional hearings on this militarization of local police departments, a federal policy that has been in place since the mid-1990s. We applaud this but also urge our readers to hold local officials’ feet to the fire on this issue. Like racism, the militarization of local police departments is a national issue.

There is no doubt that many people in Sacramento feel much the same as the protesters in Ferguson. The one burden that we must all shoulder is our history of institutionalized racism, one that has led to white overrepresentation in government, in education and in business.

To quote Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, “we stand waist deep in the toxin of our past.”

The story of America has always been one of discrimination and racial abuse. It has gotten better, especially in the last half-century, but we are a long way from being post-racial.

It is our duty to say “No more.” No more dead unarmed black youths, no more isolating and demeaning our citizens through the use of abusive policing, no more executing civilians without benefit of due process.

The government—whether in Sacramento or in Ferguson—is operating in our name.