The view of Ferguson, Mo., from afar is — you choose the negative adjective.
An unarmed teen was shot by police in a city where racial tension between police and residents has historically run high. Protests have grown violent. Militarirzed police have stepped up the militarization with heavy machinery and pointed guns. Peacemakers have been in short supply.
The Freedom of Information law has been suspended in terms of release of information that should be public. The 1st Amendment right to speech and assembly has been abridged. In addition to discouragement of assembly and lawful protest, reporters were arrested and manhandled while customers in a McDonald’s. It’s hard to read this Washington Post reporter’s account of his arrest and not question police tactics — none of which lend credibility to them in the triggering event. Do rough treatment and unjustified arrests of reporters sitting in a McDonald’s sound like the epitome of democracy to you? (This includes video of the Post reporters’ roust.)
No, it’s not easy being police. But brute force need not be the reflexive response to tension. I’m reminded again of the hot day when then-Little Rock Police Chief Stuart Thomas walked into a potentially explosive and racially charged neighborhood setting after a police shooting of a suspect. He pulled back much of the police contingent from the flashpoint. The situation calmed. Such cool heads would have been useful in Ferguson.
Too many police will say Ferguson justifies the purchase of heavy armored vehicles and other military equipment for events such as these. But think about this question: Doesthe militarization of the police — and the implication of a war-like posture — create, rather than solve, some problems?
How might the situation have been better handled in Ferguson? Wendell Griffen, a Little Rock pastor and circuit judge, offers his take this morning on a “culturally competent” handling of what happened in Ferguson. It includes more communication from local officials than has been evident.
HOW TO CONDUCT A CULTURALLY COMPETENT INVESTIGATION INTO THE DEATH OF MICHAEL BROWN.
©Wendell Griffen, 2014
I’ve stated that the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department has been culturally incompetent in its response to the death of an unarmed black teenager by a white Ferguson police officer on Saturday, August, 9. Examples of that cultural incompetence abound.
The body of Michael Brown lay uncovered in the middle of the street where he died for hours in summer heat.
The policeman who killed Michael Brown has yet to be publicly named.
When concerned protestors peacefully assembled to complain about the killing of an unarmed teenager by the cop the police responded in a show of force aimed more at intimidation of the protestors than anything else.
The police then responded to the protests by turning out with battlefield weapons and an armored vehicle against protestors who were shouting chants against excessive police force.
The Ferguson Police Department has fired tear gas and rubber bullets at unarmed people who were protesting Michael Brown’s deaths from their own lawns.
The Ferguson Police Department and Saint Louis County Prosecutor work together, as is the case in other areas. Three days after Michael Brown was shot dead, those agencies had not contacted an eyewitness to the shooting.
The Ferguson Police Department has an poor race relations record. MSNBC reported last night that a lieutenant within the department was fired after a whistleblower exposed that he directed patrol officers to racially profile black and brown people to generate more arrests.
The Ferguson Police Chief first announced that Michael Brown’s killer would be identified by yesterday, August 12. Yesterday the chief announced that the killer of Michael Brown would not be identified because of supposedly unspecified threats to his safety and that of his family.
How could this situation been handled in a way that was culturally competent?
First, Michael Brown should not be dead. Let’s get that clear. Whoever the police officer is that killed him should never have used deadly force against an unarmed person who supposedly was engaged in the plainly nonviolent conduct of jaywalking (walking in he middle of a street with a friend to visit his relative. That isn’t only cultural competence. It’s common sense. The reasonable police response to jaywalking is to politely direct the offender to walk out of the traffic lane. Another option would be to issue a traffic citation. Michael Brown would be alive. The law would be honored. Community harmony (such as it was in Ferguson before the officer shot Brown to death) would not be disturbed. But as my late father would say, “that would have been too much like right.”
After the shooting, the police response should have been to set up a crime scene. Crime scene investigators should have been deployed. The coroner should have been dispatched to recover Brown’s body. The shooter should have been immediately taken into police custody, advised of his rights in the face of what appeared to be a homicide, and been interviewed by homicide investigators after he was apprised, verbally and in writing, of his Miranda rights. Detectives should have been contacting witnesses and potential witnesses within hours.
Meanwhile, the police chief and mayor of Ferguson should have held live public briefings to inform the public about how the investigation into Brown’s death was being handled. The time and location of e briefings should have been disclosed to community leaders.
And throughout this process, the political leadership and police chief should have demonstrated attitudes that respected the grief, anger, and sense of pain felt by Michael Brown’s family and neighbors. Their message should have conveyed the following sentiments.
A. We are currently investigating the death of Michael Brown as a homicide. Although the investigation is incomplete, we can confirm that Mr. Brown (always refer to him by name and with a courtesy title) was shot by Officer (name the officer) of the Ferguson Police Department during what appears to have been a patrol encounter. Mr. Brown was pronounced dead at the scene. We extend our condolences to his family.
B. We have taken measures to secure the scene of the shooting and are requesting investigation assistance from independent police agencies. We are doing this to avoid the appearance of favoritism or any other unfairness concerning this tragic event involving the death of a member of our community after an encounter with one of our police officers. At this time we are handing over the investigation to seasoned homicide investigators from the (name the police agency that will lead the investigation and introduce the chief of that agency during the public briefing). As the investigation into Mr. Brown’s death goes forward, the independent investigating agency will provide updates to the public.
C. Although the Ferguson Police Department is not handling the investigation, we are cooperating fully with it. We ask that all information concerning this tragic event be given to (name the independent agency). Any information that is given to the Ferguson Police Department will be promptly conveyed to the independent investigators.
D. We realize that this tragedy is hurtful. A member of this community is dead. His family grieves. All of us must be concerned whenever anyone is killed. Our department respects the fact that this is a grievous situation. We ask that the public respect the need for Mr. Brown’s family and neighbors to grieve. Please help the investigators by sharing whatever information you may have about this tragedy. Please help us maintain a just sense of order and safety.
E. We are treating Mr. Brown’s death as a homicide because it occurred at the hands of another person. However, our system of justice presumes that people are innocent until proven guilty. During this investigation into Mr. Brown’s death Officer ———- is reassigned from all patrol duties and placed on administrative leave.
When the protest demonstrations began, the Ferguson police should not have been the initial response team. Nonviolent protesters call for responsive measures that are conciliatory, not confrontational. The protesters deserved to express their outrage and sense of injustice. The Mayor and other political leaders in Ferguson should have convened open sessions where protesters and other concerned persons could be heard with respect rather than viewed as threats.
The Ferguson Mayor should have conducted news briefings with media, and should have held meetings with community groups.
As far as we can tell, much of this didn’t happen over the last four days, or if it happened it was done in such a clumsy way as to go unnoticed. Instead, Ferguson, Missouri leaders allowed treated Michael Brown’s death as reason to present a military response to a civilian show of pain.
When the only or favorite tool a carpenter carries is a hammer, every job runs the risk of being treated like a nail. A carpenter who only carries a hammer may be effective at driving nails. That doesn’t make him or her competent when the job requires a different tool and isn’t a nail.