A Lesson From Ferguson: It’s Time to End Domination Policing

imagesA Lesson For America: Dismantle the Domination System

[The following essay is my attempt to look at what has caused events like recently happened in Ferguson. My narrow focus here is the police because they are the part of the system I know best. But police are only one part of a very large system of law enforcement and social control within our country. A system that not only uses police as the initial entry point, but also depends on many others such as courts, prosecutors, probation officers, prisons, and even legislators to do their part. Buttressing this giant system of social control are the attitudes and beliefs we hold about race, crime, drugs, and mental illness. These factors, taken together, form and maintain this giant system that is in need of major structural change.]

What’s happened in Ferguson is not about Darren Wilson or Michael Brown, or even about the city and its police department. Instead, it’s about a practice of policing that dominates rather than serves. For me, the best description of this style is domination policing. It is a method and practice designed to hold-down, control, and intimidate one group of people for the benefit of another. Policing by domination violates our nation’s principles, enduring values and Constitution. Unfortunately, it is alive and well today in America.

Today’s domination system isn’t too far away from the days of Jim Crow, which was also a domination system. It is not unlike how newly arrived immigrants were and are treated. Internationally, we see domination policing practiced by every one of the world’s totalitarian political systems without exception. Too frequently, it is practiced in many cities in America. Domination Policing has no place in our system of government. It is wrong and must be dismantled.

Across our nation, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Fergusons exist. They are cities and towns that once existed in a monoculture world and now are experiencing major demographic and economic shifts. Their response to these trends has often been to control and dominate certain parts of their city. These diversifying trends, however, will not stop as America continues to grow and emerge as a true multicultural nation.

While populations in many American cities shifted, their police departments did not. Police and civic leaders in those cities remained committed to serving the majority population; people who looked just like them. Those who were “different,” who were poor brought too many social and economic problems with them. It was easier to isolate them rather than help solve their problems.

So, the job of policing shifted from serving one population to controlling another. This resulted in two styles of policing — one for whites and one for all others. The police job was to keep outsiders in line; to control them and ignore the cause of their problems. Like many who are poor, the outsiders did not participate in city or school board elections. They new better as they came to understand there were two standards of justice in town. They quickly saw that police in their neighborhoods were not there to help and protect them.

This is how the Fergusons in America came to be. It really wasn’t a conscious decision to craft a system of domination. Instead, it was a knee-jerk reaction to what was happening. And the response seemed to work well; at least until something exploded and the anger of being dominated and treated unjustly boiled out.

The police in these cities are not evil white men. They were selected, trained, and taught to police this way. They simply are doing the job they were trained for. Darren Wilson said as much in his recent nationally televised interview. He said he was just doing his job.

You see, this system doesn’t look upstream for the cause of the problems they have to confront. To them, the people are the problem, not the system. It doesn’t stop and ask why what they do causes such deep resentment and anger in the black community. The system is all about control, and control always trumps civil rights, fair and equal treatment, or problem solving.

We in white America should been wiser after going through a major civil rights movement and having read the report of the Kerner Commission which told us we having two societies in our nation – “one white, one black; separate and unequal.” It’s the same today; some even say the divide is worse.

Thinking police officers know this is wrong. Deep down they know they need to build strong lasting relationships in the diverse communities in which they work. They know that’s the way ahead. But let’s face it, to do this takes skilled and specially trained men and women and a new leadership. I ask you, what do you expect your police to do? Shouldn’t they steadfastly follow the law? Shouldn’t they reinforce the founding values that are outlined in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution? What kind of a police do we need to assure our freedoms and way of life?

How is it police are to act in a free society? Wouldn’t we expect them to have deep and authentic relationships with citizens? Wouldn’t we expect that those relationships would always be fair, respectful and collaborative and never adversarial? Wouldn’t we expect our police to participate with all of us in the solving of the problems that beset us?

But in order to do this, we must, of course, have intelligent, educated police who have a strong commitment to, and even model, our cherished values. These officers must then be well trained, taught to control their anger when they absolutely must use force, be honest and ethical in their practices, respectful of every person, and be willing to be part of the life  of the community they police.

I can tell you that many police officers in our nation desire to be this kind of police officer. But many don’t. And the organizations in which they work are still deeply entrenched in the domination style. But there is a way forward.

It will, however, require a new orientation of not only the police, but of our government. As citizens, we have a right to be assured that those men and women who carry a gun and a badge and have the power of life and death over us are committed to and required to practice the essential values of our society.

When police start practicing this new and democratic style of policing, amazing things will begin to happen.  Police will begin to feel respected and supported. Crime and disorder will be quelled as police come to understand that citizens in cops-focal-033011_882382apoor neighborhoods want the same things everyone else does — order, security, good schools, jobs, and opportunity for their children to grow and thrive. Research has shown that police who practice this style of policing are safer because community residents will come to the aid when they act fairly and respectfully.

In Quality Policing: The Madison Experience (1991) I related how I led the police in Madison, Wisc. through a major organizational transformation into a more collaborative and democratic police department. It is still possible for police to change today. But it will take time, commitment, and persistence. After my retirement, and closely observing our nation’s police for a number of years, I felt compelled to write Arrested Development (2012) in which I pointed out the existence of four major obstacles that are preventing police from moving forward and being more democratic. They are the obstacles of anti-intellectualism, violence, corruption, and discourtesy — all major parts of a domination system!

Unless each one of these obstacles is overcome, we will never have police in our country that will protect our rights and treat us fairly. They will never learn how  to properly police a free and democratic society and realize the enjoyment and satisfaction of doing so.

The question we must aimages-1sk is where do police in our city or town stand today? Are they more domineering or democratic? However, we should not evaluate our police in light of our experience if we are part of white America, but we should extend our evaluation to the experiences of others in our community; particularly those who have the most contact with police, who are poor, from racial and ethnic minority groups, and are young adults.

In a free and moral society such as ours the litmus test is this: Does everyone in our society, regardless of their social status, trust and respect their police? If not, we all have work to do.

Here’s a quick checklist we can use in comparing two styles of policing:


+ Improved service to others.                   + Them versus us.

+ Community collaboration.                     + Emotionally disengaged.

+ Lawful/honest in practice.                       + Corrupt/self-serving.

+ Educated.                                                  + Anti-formal education.

+ Uses problem-solving                             + Response only to incidents.

+ Polite/civil.                                                + Discourteous/disrespectful.

+ Driven by society’s values.                    + Driven by internal police values.

+ Protective/guardian.                                + Violent/warrior.

+ Helpful/compassionate.                          + Uncaring/unfeeling.

+ Called to police work.                              + Police work is just a job.

If your police department sounds more like one that uses the domination style, then this needs to change. And this change can only happen through the collaborative work of police leaders, officers in the ranks, and citizens from all walks of life. Good luck and Godspeed!







  1. Some historians and sociologists would argue that police have always been part of a domination system. A century ago (give or take) their role in some U.S. cities was to keep the Irish (red-faced drunkards) and Italians (swarthy thieves) under control, and the general argument is that police were created in the 1800s to control “the dangerous classes” during the industrial revolution in England and elsewhere. This line of argument dismisses professional policing and community policing as mere window dressing — the iron fist inside a velvet glove. In other words, you and I and others like us have always been the witting or unwitting tools of those who really run things.

    From this perspective, modern events are nothing new, just a different group of people on the bottom getting clobbered. Of course the historical impacts of slavery and segregation and racism magnify the situation in America, sadly.

    I think there are only two solid counter-weights to this harsh way of looking at things (some would say the harsh reality, others would say it’s exaggerated). One is to argue that ours is fundamentally a just and democratic society, with laws created by the people, a government by the people, etc. Sure it has its imperfections and sure we don’t all have equal say, but there are enough checks and balances and constitutional rights and regular elections so that the police mainly exercise their power within a framework of just law and community will, rather than simply doing the bidding of elites.

    The other counter-weight, I think, and maybe this is the one that David would embrace the most, is that the police have relative autonomy. Thanks to discretion etc, individual police officers and individual police agencies have a good bit of latitude in deciding what they do and how they do it. This does open up the potential for abuse, but it also provides the possibility that police can be agents of justice even within an unjust, or less than perfectly just, society. In other words, police can do good deeds and can lead the society in better directions, if they choose to. I think that’s what David did in Madison and what others have done, not everywhere but in a lot of places that we’ve never even heard of.

    Not sure the point of this rant, sorry. Just felt the need to mention that the role of police in a domination system is not a new phenomenon, and to support David’s view that it’s not the only option available.


  2. Whenever the directive came out to crack down on cars parked facing the wrong way, my old friend Jay Hancock always went straight to Mallard Island and ticketed only Mercedes and Cadillacs. A small thing, but it helps remind me that police can be the ones to smooth the rough edges of injustice. Similarly, I’ve heard lots of reports over the last few years of police giving out far fewer traffic summons, specifically because the fines have become so heavy. I guess I choose to believe that our glass is more full than empty …


    1. Gary, Before Ferguson I was skeptical of major improvements happening in our ranks. Now I am more hopeful. Since Kerner, I don’t think any president talked much about police and race and mistrust. This is a great opportunity to get down to a deep discussion about the role of police, a discussion about what is good/great policing, and how we do it. The body of knowledge is collectively out there. Now we need leadership to bring it about. I think we need to begin from the beginning — these are our founding values, this is the Constitution, this is who we are, and this is how we wish to live together. What would police and do in such a society?


  3. The cops in America have gone back to their old ways of keeping the masses under control by being lackeys for the wealthy elite only this time they got better computer technology and fusion centers to keep track of people and organizations plus thanks to 9/11, they got laws, DAs, and judges to criminalizes their misconduct


  4. David – Happy Holidays and thank you for bringing progressive solutions to the policing concerns we are all facing across America today.

    As a founder and newly elected First Vice Chair of the new NAACP of Dane County, I would like to extend an invitation to have you speak and dialogue, with over 400 of our members, sometime during the first quarter of 2015.

    We meet the 4th Tuesday of every month from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. at CWAG’s Office Building on Madison’s east side. If none of those dates work for your busy schedule during January, February or March, I’d would be more than happy to arrange a special two hour meeting date and time (morning, afternoon or evening), which works best for you.

    Thank you your consideration. Take care. God Bless and have a safe and a relaxing Holiday Season.

    – Nino Amato / namato@cwag.org / 608-514-3317
    President/CEO Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups
    1st Vice Chair, NAACP of Dane County


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