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Police and Public Relations: One Year Post-Ferguson

Dana E. Brede

Introduction

The field of criminology often parallels a myriad of contentious and widely debated subject matter and events—much of which plays out in real time for the masses via a very liberal media. Criminologists are trained to align their thinking and opinions of such contentious subject matter along with the evidence and facts—wherever it lands. The media, on the other hand, plays a very different role. With ratings very much at the top of the priority list, mass media often takes one side and runs with it—sometimes they have it right and sometimes they only add fuel to the fire. Just over one year ago, the country watched with bated breath as tension and violence erupted in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of a racially charged police versus public showdown following the death of a young African American man at the hands of a Caucasian police officer. Further, media images illuminated a scene that brought about a wave of emotion for viewers throughout the country and the world. By some measure, media footage in Ferguson, Missouri, in many ways resembled an apocalyptic horror movie coupled with raw images synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement. To this day, I’ve had to remind myself, “This is America.”

My stance and thoughts on the events that both proceeded and followed that fateful day in Ferguson will remain neutral. It is my intention to simply invoke deeper understanding, critical thinking, and a moment’s pause for the trajectory that our country is headed towards if minds stay narrowed and clouded with prejudice and stereotyping—this applies to those on either side of the police tape.

The facts as they stand as outlined by the Department of Justice are as follows:

  • A call was dispatched shortly after of strong arm robbery at a convenience store.
  • Michael Brown and Witness 101 were seen on surveillance camera within the convenience store.
  • Michael Brown was seen stealing boxes of cigarillos and when confronted by the store clerk, Brown forcefully pushed him to the ground.
  • Mr. Brown and Witness 101 left the establishment.
  • Michael Brown was reported walking away from the convenience store with Witness 101.
  • Officer Darren Wilson approached Michael Brown with his patrol vehicle because he met the description of the suspect from the strong arm robbery.
  • Before Officer Wilson was able to get out of his vehicle, Michael Brown reached in the car and punched Wilson.
  • Interaction escalated between Brown and Wilson rapidly, in roughly a 2-minute exchange.
  • Wilson shot Brown in (what was later determined to be) self-defense1.
  • Outcry for the justice over the shooting of Michael Brown ensued.
  • Rioting, looting, and violence took over Ferguson.
  • A State of Emergency was declared.
  • The National Guard entered Ferguson to help suppress the rioting.
  • Curfew was enforced in Ferguson.
  • Investigation into events surrounding the death of Michael Brown begin/conclude.
  • Officer Darren Wilson is cleared of any misconduct.
  • Rioting, looting, and violence, again, take over Ferguson.
  • “Die-ins” and protests are staged throughout the country.

Police/Public Relations Today in Ferguson, Missouri

Police Officer. For some, these words create a spine curling cringe or a sentiment of fear, distrust, anger, and hatred. For others, the term “police officer” is the embodiment of protection, courage, security, and kindness. It really boils down to personal exposure, socioeconomic status, and what side of the law one has a historical record with. Community relations and the police are, at best, multi-faceted and complex in any community. So, how can tense relations between police and the public improve? Further, it goes without saying that Ferguson is a prime example of a community that was and is deeply polarized. It is a community where deep distrust and hostility often characterize and sum up interactions between police and community residents.

Census Data in Ferguson

To be frank, Ferguson is a community that has a large cultural gap between population and police. In large part due to the demographics of the 21,000 citizens – African Americans make up just over 67%2 of the population. For those who are wondering, that figure, counters a police force that is predominately Caucasian.

Is it an anomaly that last year, African American residents accounted for 86% of vehicle stops made by Ferguson police? Or purely judicious given the demographics? Is it outrageous that 85% of people arrested by Ferguson police were African American or is it just a trend that is consistent in any community when there is a cultural majority? African Americans have accounted for most arrests in Ferguson but how do the statistics stack up against other cities both large and small?

Food for Thought: Take Detroit, Phoenix, and Chicago as some examples…where do the numbers land? What does the data show?

Resource (Detroit):
http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/detroit/2015/01/06/detroit-crime-stats/21357935/

Resource (Phoenix):
http://www.city-data.com/crime/crime-Phoenix-Arizona.html

Resource (Chicago):
http://crime.chicagotribune.com/

Assumptions and Stereotyping

The events in Ferguson illustrated assumptions, stereotyping, and racism on both sides of the police tape. Both sides had valid arguments and both sides felt outraged—at least they had one thing in common. History has proven that the United States has a long way to go in terms of police and community partnerships, especially in racially disparate communities. It is far easier said than done on how to manage such hostile relations. That being said—initiatives in Ferguson are currently underway to rebuild a broken sense of community and trust.

Moreover, in a time when the country wanted and needed clarity following the unrest in Ferguson, Attorney General Eric H. Holder was quoted saying:

“[Ferguson is] a community where local authorities consistently approached law enforcement not as a means for protecting public safety, but as a way to generate revenue. A community where both policing and municipal court practices were found to disproportionately harm African American residents. A community where this harm frequently appears to stem, at least in part, from racial bias – both implicit and explicit. And a community where all of these conditions, unlawful practices, and constitutional violations have not only severely undermined the public trust, eroded police legitimacy, and made local residents less safe – but created an intensely charged atmosphere where people feel under assault and under siege by those charged to serve and protect them3”.

Discussion Question: What are your thoughts on Eric Holder’s comments? Helpful? Constructive? Hurtful? Why?

Role of Media

My opinion of the media has always been jaded and I own that. I recognize my own personal biases. I believe the media has to take some ownership in their coverage and attention they give to events. The liberal media in a globalized world is a machine that often fans the flames rather than providing neutral news coverage.

Question: How could news coverage of the Ferguson riots been handled differently?

Another young African American man was shot by police after an altercation in St. Louis, some twenty minutes outside of Ferguson. The facts of that incident, as they remain, are that he pulled out a stolen weapon and shot at police before he was killed. More comparisons were made to the Michael Brown shooting - rioting and further outcry for justice ensued…meanwhile, almost simultaneously, a young 9-year-old girl was shot and killed by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting in Ferguson. The media chose a side and it truly does baffle me as to who the public demanded justice for. That 9-year-old girl was killed in a senseless act of violence. This, in my opinion, reflects the more relevant issues—we as a society need to widen our gaze to building communities up instead of pointing the fingers of blame at each other. Crime is going to exist everywhere.

Solutions for the Future

I do not have the answers. I do not have the ability to discern the best mechanisms for how to implement strategies on how to improve police/public relations in places like Ferguson. I do believe that true reformation and rebuilding will have to start from the ground up. It will be a challenge for the next wave of law enforcement personnel, community managers, criminologists, etc. to start tackling the complexities that exist in places like Ferguson. While strides are being made, only time will tell if relations will improve over time. I do not envy the responsibility the police chief of Ferguson has on his shoulders.

“This is America.” This is the world that you as criminologists will face. My challenge to you is to compile a list of strategies (big or small) and email them to me. I would be very interested in having a further discussion.

Please send your comments, strategies and suggestions to dbrede@regis.edu

Interested in learning more about the Master of Science in Criminology at Regis University? Request more information or call 877-820-0581.

 

1N.A. (March 4, 2015) DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE REPORT REGARDING THE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION INTO THE SHOOTING DEATH OF MICHAEL BROWN BY FERGUSON, MISSOURI POLICE OFFICER DARREN WILSON. Retrieved from http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/doj_report_on_shooting_of_michael_brown_1.pdf

2http://www.census.gov/2010census/popmap/ipmtext.php?fl=29:2923986

3Holder, E. H. (March 4, 2015). Attorney General Holder Delivers Update on Investigations in Ferguson, Missouri. Washington D.C. Retrieved from http://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-holder-delivers-update-investigations-ferguson-missouri