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Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Current Affairs ... Public Policy ... Society ...

Looks like Fegruson, MO might be back in the news shortly. A Grand Jury is soon expected to release its decision as to whether criminal charges should be filed against Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for the August 9, 2014 shooting and killing of 18 year old Michael Brown by Darren. The Washington Post reports that the testimony of six local residents to the Saint Louis County Grand Jury who eyewitnessed the shooting, along with physical evidence collected at the scene, tend to confirm Wilson’s version of the story (i.e., that a physical struggle between Wilson and Brown ensued while Wilson was in his police vehicle, during a stop by Wilson to warn Brown and his companion not to walk in the middle of a busy street; Brown tried to take Wilson’s gun from him during the struggle; Wilson’s gun was discharged during the struggle, but did not hit anyone; Brown and his companion then ran from the vehicle while Wilson recovered his weapon and then got out and ordered them to stop; Brown stopped, but then starting moving towards Wilson without any sign of surrender — i.e., no “hands up”; and Wilson then raised his gun and discharged a volley of shots at the approaching Brown, hitting him at least 6 times including in the forehead, thus killing him).

If the Post report is true, then the likeihood of a “no-bill” (whereby the Grand Jury lets Wilson off) must be taken seriously. Local officials thus fear that there could be significant protests and possible disturbances once again in Ferguson as a result. There is no doubt that many in the African American community, including a majority of its leaders, will be upset if Wilson walks away without any sort of punishment. To repeat the obvious, many African Americans have had upsetting and arguably disrespectful interactions with police in their lives, and thus well remember the many incidents reported in the press over the past decade where unarmed black community members were killed by law enforcement (e.g., Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Wendell Allen, etc., with very many others not making the national news). The Ferguson situation is just another lightening rod for their angst and frustrations.

However, there does appear to be a valid argument that Officer Wilson was mostly doing what he should have been doing (other than perhaps the final barrage of close-range shots against Brown; while defensive measures were probably justified if Wilson’s version of the story holds up, the public still needs to consider if a somewhat less fatal strategy could have been executed by Wilson under the circumstances). In making the initial police stop to warn Brown and his companion not to walk in the center of the street, Wilson was effecting the “broken windows” philosophy of local policing. In a nutshell, this philosophy says that in a neighborhood challenged by crime or potential high crime activity, the police need to step up enforcement against little things that may at best involve a citation and fine; e.g., vandalism (e.g. breaking windows in an abandoned building), riding mass transit without paying, drinking alcoholic beverages in a public park, littering, and stop-sign running. And, arguably, walking intentionally in the middle of a busy roadway, creating a nuisance and safety hazard for drivers.

The broken windows idea, which was conceived by two criminology professors and has been extensively studied by the social sciences since the 1980s, is that controlling the little things sends a clear warning signal to those who would use the neighborhood as the base for bigger crimes, such as drug dealing and gun selling, which often lead to even more disturbing violent crimes and gang activity. I.e., if the police aren’t going to let a minor fist-fight go unnoticed, they certainly aren’t going to tolerate an auto theft/hijacking operation.

Unfortunately, when neighborhoods become inundated with major crime activities, local police are tempted to let the little things go and focus their resources mainly against the big things. Professors Kelling and Wilson (who first wrote about the concept) argue that this starts a vicious downhill spiral, one that can only be broken by getting down to the roots and re-establishing law and order in the victimized neighborhood. They also note that those who are stopped for small infractions often are involved in more serious criminal acts (which was certainly the case with Michael Brown, given the store robbery that he accomplished just a few minutes before the street nuisance incident). Police make some of their most significant arrests in situations that started with a parking or speeding ticket.

According to criminal statistics, Ferguson had a significantly elevated crime rate between 2000 and 2008 (bouncing between 427 and 578 crimes per 100,000 population), which then started to trend downward, reaching 381 in 2012 (versus a US average of 298). Much of the problem in Ferguson centered around thefts and burglaries — certainly not good for local residents of any race. Although I am not familiar with what the Ferguson Police Department’s official strategies were during this time, it seems quite plausible that Officer Wilson’s initial stop of Brown was part of a “broken windows” effort (whether official or unofficial) that was having some success in reducing overall crime in Ferguson, and thus making life better for the vast majority of law-abiding residents.

While an outcry by national black leadership against on-going disrespect from police is certainly necessary, and while the Ferguson situation offers a spotlight in which to help raise national awareness of the injustices tied to this phenomenon, an unfortunate backfire effect could ensue if black leadership continues to use political pressure to gain sanctions against Officer Wilson despite the ambiguity of the evidence against him (and the existence of local evidence supporting his contentions). If Wilson is chastised despite evidence that would normally not support sanction, the message would appear to be that a white policeman should do the minimum while patrolling in a community of color; e.g., only intervene when she or he witnesses a significant crime, or responds directly to a call initiated by a local resident.

Yes, certainly there are too many white police officers in the Ferguson Police Department. That situation cannot be changed overnight, and even if (and when, hopefully) population parity is achieved, there will still be times when a white cop is needed to patrol a black neighborhood, due to random operational factors. Should the white cop then “do the minimum” while on patrol for fear of becoming another Officer Wilson, forsaking any sort of “broken windows” pro-active / preventative involvement? Is that fair to African-American homeowners struggling to improve a neighborhood where socio-economic factors have fostered criminal activity in the past?

There is a delicate balance that needs to be struck between repressive and overly-lenient police tactics in communities challenged by crime. Unfortunately, national political spotlights are not the best environment for finding such balances, especially in the era of over-stimulative media bombardment of the public via smart phones, tweets, wide-screen cable TV’s, Facebook feeds, all layered onto the still-extant base of radio news, network TV and printed newspapers. I’m just hoping that cooler heads will prevail no matter which way the St. Louis County Grand Jury goes, and that real solutions can be eventually be found for all of the many problems that have gotten so tragically ensnarled in Ferguson, Mo.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:51 am      

  1. Jim, Can’t say I disagree with anything you said here. Your point about the “broken window” theory is well taken, as I see it. A couple of points I’d like to add come to mind, tho.

    There are some situations in life I’ve noticed—perhaps most of the situations of life—are such that no one is entirely right and no one is entirely wrong in any particular situation. So, regarding the one in Ferguson, MO:

    I know this seems seriously immaterial and particularly superficial on my part, but I keep wondering how it is that no one in the family of Michael Brown can find a picture of him where he does not look simply like a thug. While this may be immaterial and superficial on my part, I think it *does* say something about Michael Brown and how likely he might have been involved in a less than amicable
    situation of some kind with the police.

    While I certainly can understand the general attitude of African American men toward police (I think my own such attitude toward police were I an African American male might be even more volatile that theirs often is), there is something about walking down the middle of a street where there is traffic, causing the drivers to be concerned about not hitting anyone, that simply is out of order on even the “polite” level of society, to say nothing of the “safety” level of society or the “consideration for others” aspect of society. It gives an indication of Mr. Brown’s attitude toward the rest of society; something close to an “I don’t care about you” attitude, it seems to me.

    So, it seems Michael Brown in this situation might have exercised more civic caution, more care for others in how and where he chose to walk, to say nothing of how he responded to the officer: first an altercation, then running away, and then advancing on the police officer. Thus, we have the mistakes Mr. Brown might have made.

    Then there is the police officer, Wilson, who it seems found it necessary, after what seems to have been an altercation with Mr. Brown, to shoot him six times, including in the forehead, surely a deathly shot. As you mention, I too find myself wondering if one single shot to a different body part might have stopped Mr. Brown’s advance as easily as the rest of the shots by Officer Wilson. I wonder exactly what kind of training police officers get in shooting. Do they learn how to stop an individual with a shot to a less lethal body part, say an arm where there is no major blood-carrying vessel, a lower leg, again where no major blood-carrying vessel runs? It would seem to me that such training would be required of police officers.

    Thus, it seems both parties were wrong in some of the more important parts of the situation here. Perhaps, now as I think about it, the police seem guilty on a more broad level in general than Mr. Brown in this situation. But in general, it still seems to me that little about this situation is right.

    I can sympathize with the Black community that they are simply sick and tired of being harassed by officers for little things. On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that in every situation the approach that “my son can do no wrong” is the right one either. And this attitude toward one’s children is not confined to the black community; it’s rampant in the white community too. I learned very long ago that parents who think their children aren’t doing “whatever the latest unacceptable thing” are likely very sadly mistaken. Parents need to consider that their children are only too likely to have lives of their own that do not include telling their parents everything they do.

    Then too, one thing I learned early in my professional life was never to respond to a person I was dealing with while I was angry. Actually, the same kind of thing, with a slight change of version, also hold for parents: Never punish a child in anger. One might “pretend” anger, that is, indicate this is not something funny or a joke; we are dealing with serious issues here. But to punish in actual anger is a serious mistake. I find myself wondering if six shots fired, one at the forehead, indicates a response in anger rather than a response to “protect and serve”. Maybe one of the first things police should be instructed in when responding to what they perceive as offenders is to not become emotionally involved in their response to the other’s actions.

    Currently, I’m reading about Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP in the 1930s and 1940s and the contribution they made to the civil rights of the black community. Even 50 or 60 years later in the South there were massive offenses on the part of the white community against the black community, considering them as less than what one might call “real people”. Our country’s history is rife with terrible mistakes and offenses made by the white community against the black community (to say nothing of the Native American Community. But I digress.)

    I find myself wondering, here we are in 2014, almost 150 years after the slaves were freed and how far have we really gotten in equal rights? Certain sections of our country are better than others when it comes to equal rights. However, there are areas, larger and smaller, where some of the old habits still hang on.

    But nothing is helped for either side of such a situation when there is nothing right about a particular situation. Your last point about the social media with what seems to be everyone contributing his/her two cents regarding the situation is right on the mark; the social media does not help when everyone thinks his/her opinion on a particular subject is the most important in the world. It often seems to me that the world in general has a long way to go in learning how to adjust and live with social media in a responsible and adult way, rather than in a “I have my right to say what I think too” approach to anything and everything.

    Meanwhile, the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, remains open and still a wound that doesn’t seem to heal. We can only hope that time will bring some healing to the entirety of the situation there. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 29, 2014 @ 9:06 pm

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