It was a day of peaceful protest and remembrance that will unfortunately be remembered as yet as another day of violence and lost opportunity for reconciliation. Perhaps it was an isolated incident or perhaps it is a reminder that calm and peace will not come with time, but with restorative work.
Late Sunday in Ferguson, a man fired multiple shots at four plainclothes detectives in an SUV. When the detectives fired back, the shooter was struck and critically wounded.
We would learn that the victim was a young man who graduated from high School and was really close with Michael Brown, who was killed in Ferguson a year ago.
As the Washington Post put it in a comprehensive story this week, “It begins with a relatively minor incident: A traffic stop. A burglary. A disturbance. Police arrive and tensions escalate. It ends with an unarmed black man shot dead.”
They write, “Perhaps most infamously, the pattern played out one year ago Sunday in Ferguson, Mo., where a white police officer searching for a convenience-store robber shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. That incident sparked a national movement to protest police treatment of African Americans and turned 18-year-old Michael Brown into a putative symbol of racial inequality in America.”
The statistics are chilling. The Washington Post is now keeping a database on fatal police shootings. They have found that 24 unarmed black men have been shot and killed by police so far this year. That is one every nine days.
These 24 cases “constitute a surprisingly small fraction of the 585 people shot and killed by police.” Of those killed, most were white or Hispanic and the vast majority of all races were armed.
However, the Post finds that “black men accounted for 40 percent of the 60 unarmed deaths, even though they make up just 6 percent of the U.S. population. The Post’s analysis shows that black men were seven times more likely than white men to die by police gunfire while unarmed.”
The latest incident is the case of Christian Taylor, 19, a promising defensive back on the Angelo State University football team. “Police said Taylor crashed an SUV through the front window of a car dealership in Arlington, Tex., and was shot in an altercation with responding officers. The case is under investigation.”
The Post writes, “The disproportionate number of unarmed black men in the body count helps explain why outrage continues to simmer a year after Ferguson — and why shootings that might have been ignored in the past are now coming under fresh public and legal scrutiny.”
As we noted last week, this is not just a racial issue, though the disproportionate number of unarmed blacks killed suggests that there is a strong racial component.
Five hundred eighty-five people killed by police since January is a huge number. How big a number? In of March 2014, 111 people died at the hands of police in the U.S., 90 of them by shooting. In contrast, the United Kingdom has seen only 52 people killed by police since 1900.
But all of this comes back to Ferguson.
“Ferguson was a watershed moment in policing. Police understand they are now under the microscope,” said Mark Lomax as quoted by the Washington Post. Mr. Lomax is the executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, which represents police rank-and-file.
“Prior to Ferguson, police were politically untouchable. Ferguson changed that calculus,” said Georgetown University professor Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor whose book, The Chokehold: Policing Black Men, is scheduled to be published next year.
“Five years from now, every major police department in America will have officers who wear body cameras,” Butler said. “That is a change that is happening right now because of Ferguson.”
Now, everyone believes this is a positive trend. As the Post notes, some in law enforcement fear that the emphasis on these incidents will shift public sympathy away from police and toward suspects.
The Post writes, “They are concerned that people will forget that Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown, was exonerated by Justice Department investigators, who found no evidence to refute Wilson’s contention that he fired in self-defense.”
“We are worried that police officers who should rely on their intuition and training to make a split-second decision — which could mean life or death for them — won’t do it. That their fear of being second-guessed, and maybe even prosecuted, will take over instead,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police.
But, if that is the case, perhaps police have only themselves to blame.
There has been little movement to create a national guideline on the use of force. There has been little update on training in terms of deescalating situations. Several of the incidents caught on film show that refusal by the subject to cooperate leads to escalation and ultimately a disproportionate response by police.
Moreover, police agencies have been slow to adopt new technology that will clarify incidents. Several incidents – South Carolina and Cincinnati – showed the importance of video as a way to determine the veracity of police claims about the incident.
Police have moved toward more militaristic tactics, both in terms of equipment as well as dynamic entries. Practices like “Stop and Frisk” have greatly escalated tensions between minority communities and the police.
This week the ACLU and city of Chicago reached what they are calling a landmark agreement after the ACLU complained that the number of street stops by Chicago police under “stop-and-frisk” was “shocking.”
According to the Chicago Tribune, they agreed to appoint a retired federal magistrate judge to oversee the reforms. This includes instituting heightened training for the department’s 12,000 officers and supervisors. Chicago police will be required to “keep track of all investigatory street stops and protective pat-downs, not just those that don’t result in an arrest,” to make it more possible to assess the impact of the street stops on the public.
The two sides agreed for “former Judge Arlander Keys, an African-American, to use the additional data to determine if the city’s practices are lawful, issue public reports twice a year on his conclusions and make recommendations for changes in department policy and training.”
The ACLU found that “Chicago police made more than a quarter-million stops from May through August 2014, a far higher rate than New York City cops did at the height of their controversial stop-and-frisk policy. The ACLU called the numbers ‘a troubling sign’ of illegal police tactics.” The department denied these charges, claiming “it flatly prohibited racial profiling and cited its improved officer training.”
Under the new agreement, however, “the department agreed to heightened training to ensure its officers made stops only when they had ‘reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct.’ They are also to carry out protective pat-downs only if they are reasonably suspicious the citizen is armed and dangerous.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting