What Have We Learned Since Ferguson?

St. Louis Police SWAT team responds to the protests in Ferguson.

The shooting in Ferguson in August, 2014, when a young black man was killed by a white police officer and the violent aftermath it caused, should have been a defining moment in our nation’s history.

It should have helped improve police in America. I don’t think that it did. Instead, a questionable number of police shootings followed. Each of which should also have generated a learning opportunity for police in America and a better nation.

Instead, the focus by both police and community members was on the shooting itself. As it turned out, the officer involved was exonerated. That’s when trouble began in a violent wave across our country. Yet, instead of focusing on system improvements, it was on the shooting with a plethora of accusations about what really happened to cause that death of many young, black men in cities across America.

Later a report by the federal government revealed many, many problems in Ferguson city government and their police. (A similar situation, by the way, found in many suburban and urban American cities.) Each of the police shootings caused seething problems between police and the black community to (once again) emerge and come to light.

That day in Ferguson should have caused our police throughout the country to review their use of force policies, selection and training methods, the amount of diversity in their organization, race and racism, and how officers are supervised as they go about their daily work. Ferguson and protests in other cities should have also caused a review of how SWAT teams are used how police respond to public protest.

Furthermore, after a number of respectable national polls revealed the low level of trust between communities of color and their police should have caused police to review their overall interactions with communities of color, develop better trust and working relationships, and whether they were really “community-oriented.”

I have not been able to find out how many police agencies went through these important internal processes, but I will venture to say that few did, and even fewer shared their work with the communities they serve. Thankfully, the federal government stepped in as President Obama quickly called for a task force of police leaders, academics, and community advocates to look at these problems and make recommendations. How many of the twenty-some core recommendations issued in their report have been fully implemented in our nation’s police agencies? Very few.

Why is this? What is it that restrains police from meeting community expectations? Wouldn’t you think this would be “job one?” Is it that the police subculture frowns on accountability, transparency, and admission of mistakes? Most learned people understand that mistakes are great opportunities to fix that which may be broken and in need of improvement. Is it a weakness to do admit things could have been done better; to openly share improvement results (and a commitment to do better) with the community?

To me, this kind of process, organizational self-evaluation, is extremely healthy for police; to be able to say that sometimes mistakes are made. And when they are made to say we will work to fix them and ask you, the community, to help us. This sounds like the kind of action we would expect and demand from a healthcare organization. It is openness, transparency, and accountability that builds trust.

I hope readers would agree with me that in order to field an effective police function, those who do the work must be trusted by those whom they serve; from trust flows support. Without public support, police become community occupiers rather than trusted guardians. In a government that states it is “of the people, by the people, and for the people” should never permit its police function to be other than that.  

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  1. Read the Task Force Report on 21st Century Policing.
  2. Share it with your department and community leaders.
  3. Pick 5-10 recommendations most important to you and your community.
  4. Form a working group of police and community leaders to begin implementing recommendations you choose.
  5. Report to both department and community members how you are doing.
  6. Celebrate achievements. Share them widely.
  7. Begin another cycle of improvements.

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Here’s five more things learned since 2015:

1. Black Americans are disproportionately killed by police.

2. Black men are more likely to be fatally shot while unarmed.

3. Most people killed by police are young men.

4. Since 2015, police have shot and killed an average of 3 people per day.

5. More than 2,500 police departments have shot and killed at least one person since 2015.

From The Washington Post