Blog 45. Ferguson: The Tip of the Iceberg?

For several weeks of August, the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri received massive coverage from the media, nationally and internationally. Although the actions of Brown and Wilson took only a few moments, they exposed long-standing racial tensions that are found not only in Ferguson but in cities around the country. For the moment, relative calm has returned to Ferguson and the city has moved out of the media spotlight. While both of those conditions may change, this may be a time to take stock of what we know and don’t know and to consider the implications of Ferguson for other cities.

The Questions.

The most basic question is simply what happened: nearly a month after the event, the facts leading up to the shooting remain elusive. Did the shooting occur after Brown had raised his hands in surrender or after he had once assaulted Wilson and was now charging directly at him? Put another way, did Officer Wilson use excessive force or did he, as some have charged, murder Brown?

The second level of questions relate to the conduct of the police immediately after the shooting and in subsequent days as they responded to growing protests and demonstrations. Did the police aggravate an inherently explosive situation by a series of missteps: delaying in the removal of Brown’s body from the site; providing contradictory information as to whether Wilson had considered Brown to be a robbery suspect; releasing a video showing the robbery while withholding other information (including the name of the police officer involved as well as the report of the shooting that he would have filed); confronting protesters with military equipment, including armored vehicles, and using tear gas and rubber bullets? Should the federal government revise its policy of making surplus military equipment available to communities?

The third level of questions concerns the practices of the Ferguson police and relations between the police and community prior to August 9. Were the Ferguson police aware that it was problematic to serve a community that is two-thirds black with a police force on which only 3 of 53 officers were black? To what extent were they aware of feelings of distrust and resentment of the police in the black community? What steps, if any, had they taken to address such feelings? What plans do they have to address them in the future? What steps can the police take to assure that actions by their officers are neither over-zealous nor tinged with racism? Are there similar problems of distrust and resentment in other cities?

The fourth and most difficult level of question concerns the socio-economic conditions of the black community. Do such conditions produce criminal behavior? How can we alleviate such conditions?

What happened on August 9?

While the facts of August 9 are yet unresolved, opinions formed quickly in the African American community. As reported in The Washington Post on August 25:

The vast majority of Americans are keeping an open mind when it comes to whether the shooting of Michael Brown was justified, according to a new poll from CBS News and the New York Times. But when it comes to African Americans, the verdict is basically in: that the shooting was not justified. And it will be difficult to convince them otherwise.

The CBS/NYT poll showed that 64 percent of Americans overall said they didn’t have enough information to determine whether police officer Darren Wilson was justified in shooting Brown two weeks ago in Ferguson, Mo. Among those who have decided, only about one in 10 said he was justified (9 percent), while 25 percent said he wasn’t justified.

As with just about everything else relating to what happened in Ferguson, though, perceptions vary widely across races. Although 68 percent of whites said they don’t have enough information, a clear majority of blacks — 57 percent — said they believe Wilson was not justified in shooting Brown.

If Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, is indicted and stands trial, his interactions with Brown will be publicly scrutinized in minute detail, but even that process may appear inconclusive to many. (For example, even after a full trial, we do not know, and opinions differ, as to exactly what happened between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.)

Most who have referred to the “Ferguson tragedy” have had in mind the death of Michael Brown. Understandably so. Surely the violent death of anyone, and particularly a young person with his life ahead of him, is tragic. Nevertheless, there are other dimensions to the events in Ferguson, including the impact on Officer Wilson, that may come to be considered tragic. Even if Wilson is cleared of legal responsibility, his career in law enforcement may well be over and he is likely to be haunted by Brown’s death for the rest of his life. Finally, the devastation visited on businessmen whose shops were looted, and in some cases destroyed, in the protests may also be considered tragic.

Conduct of the Ferguson police after the shooting.

The Ferguson police were widely criticized for their actions immediately after the shooting and in response to protests. Nevertheless, there is no indication that performance of the police will be subject to a detailed review by either state or federal official. Such a review would seem to be important and useful in order to assess the adequacy of police training and to put in place procedures to guide future responses.

There does appear to be an intention on the part of Congress and the Administration to reconsider the policy of making surplus military equipment available to local police departments. Even if the policy is modified prospectively, it would be helpful to have guidance as to how and under what circumstances military equipment now on hand should be deployed.

Practices of the Ferguson Police.

The Department of Justice has announced that it will conduct an investigation into the practices of the Ferguson police prior to August 9. Such an investigation was probably inevitable and is probably constructive since it will provide an opportunity not only to reveal changes that may be appropriate, but to supplant emotion with data. In the aftermath of Brown’s death, protesters conveyed the impression of wide-spread feelings in the black community of unfair treatment by police. For example, Reverend Sharpton, speaking at the funeral of Michael Brown, referred to “aggressive policing of low-level crimes,” but what is “aggressive policing” and how should the police respond to “low-level crimes”?

Preliminarily, however, subjective concerns of unequal treatment in Ferguson appear to find some support in objective data. A New York Times article cited a report from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office:

In Ferguson last year, 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches and 93 percent of arrests were of black people — despite the fact that police officers were far less likely to find contraband on black drivers (22 percent versus 34 percent of whites).

The Department of Justice has indicated that its investigation will not deal with the hiring practices of the Ferguson police department and the fact that blacks are conspicuously under-represented. After the Brown shooting, there appeared to be wide agreement that the demography of the police force should bear a more reasonable relation to that of the community it serves. It may be noted an article in The New York Times on August 31 reported that, based on available data, it is far from clear that white officers are more likely to shoot black suspects. Nevertheless, if such a shooting does occur in the context of a nearly all-white police force serving a majority black community, prospects for unrest and protest are obviously heightened. Apart from fatal encounters, however, the presence of an all-white, or substantially all-white, police force seems almost certain to contribute to racial tensions in a community of minority citizens.

Finally, It should be recognized that the racial imbalance of the Ferguson police force is not unique. A September 4 article in The New York Times, documented comparable situations in many cities, concluding that “In hundreds of police departments across the country, the percentage of whites on the force is more than 30 percentage points higher than in the communities they serve.” It is not clear what remedial steps Ferguson, let alone other cities, will take to address this issue, and an interesting question is whether a program to hire and promote black officers could be challenged as unlawful discrimination by white candidates. (A majority of the Supreme Court has been unsympathetic to programs of affirmative action and Chief Justice Roberts spoke for several of his colleagues in saying in 2007, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”)

Socio-economic conditions in Ferguson.

The socio-economic conditions, more bluntly poverty, in the black community of Ferguson may or may not have had something to do with what occurred between Michael Brown and Officer Wilson. But they certainly played a significant part in the reactions to that event in Ferguson and beyond.

When conflicts occur between police and black suspects, the black community (and many white liberals) are often ready to find racist police, while conservatives emphasize dysfunction and behavior in the black community that is problematic or worse. But both liberals and conservatives tend to acknowledge that, one way or another, poverty is a factor. Ferguson is a city in which the effects of concentrated poverty are apparent. As summed up in a CBS report, “[t]hese effects include lack of access to jobs and health care, sub-standard schools and higher crime rates.Again, however, Ferguson is not alone. The same report made the point that it is representative of a growing problem of suburban poverty which, according to one study, is even more difficult than poverty in urban centers: “We find that suburban poor neighborhoods are more likely to be organizationally deprived than urban poor neighborhoods, especially with respect to organizations that promote upward mobility.”

The issues of how to address poverty—whether urban, suburban or rural— continue to be confounding and are too complex to receive more than brief mention here. Nevertheless, they are matters that are of urgent need of attention from both blacks and whites. Education and job training are key although there is continuing debate on how to make such programs more effective. We have also argued that it is important, though perhaps even more difficult, to find ways of treating the epidemic of out of wedlock births, which occur disproportionately in the black community. Finally, we must reform a sentencing regime that disrupts families and communities by putting too many young men behind bars and returns them to their communities with meager prospects of supporting themselves and their families.

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