Beyond Ferguson: Tell The President To Take Action

Terrance Heath

Michael Brown has been laid to rest. The National Guard has begun “systematically withdrawing,” and calm has returned to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. With no more dramatic scenes, and no major news to cover unless or until investigations lead to litigation, media will pack up and leave until Ferguson offers a new story to cover.

In the meantime, life goes on. Much as they cleaned the streets in the wake of the first violent protests, Ferguson residents are returning to a semblance of “normal” life, and starting the long process of helping their communities recover.

The disparities and tensions that fueled angry protests in Ferguson still fester below the surface. Ferguson is still a 67 percent black city with an overwhelmingly white power structure. All but one city council member, all but one school board member, and all but 3 of its 53 police officers are white. Nearly one quarter of its residents — and 28 percent of black residents — live below the poverty line. It’s still a city so poor that it relies on court fees for a quarter of its revenues; fees paid by struggling black residents who account for 86 percent of car stops, 82 percent of searches, and 93 percent of arrests.

At Michael Brown’s funeral, Rev. Al Sharpton contrasted the paramilitary police force on display in Ferguson with a city choked by poverty and starved of real investment.

“America is going to have to come to terms when there’s something wrong, that we have money to give military equipment to police forces, when we don’t have money for training, and money for public education and … our children.”

Ferguson is hardly alone. The same and even worse conditions exist in St. Louis’ forgotten suburbs. The conditions that created the “perfect storm” in Ferguson, are brewing in cities across the country. Ferguson and communities like it need real solutions, to avoid “the fire next time.”

To that end, over 100 social justice leaders, congressional members, faith leaders, artists, and activists signed an open letter to President Obama laying out seven action areas in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson:

  • Training: Racial bias is real. Whether implicit or explicit, it influences perceptions and behaviors and can be deadly. Law enforcement personnel in every department in the country, under guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), should be required to undergo racial bias training as a part of ongoing professional development and training.
  • Accountability: Police departments should not be solely responsible for investigating themselves. These departments are funded by the public and should be accountable to the public. Enforceable accountability measures must be either established or reexamined for impartiality in circumstances where police shoot unarmed victims. DOJ must set and implement national standards of investigation that are democratic (involving independent review boards broadly representative of the community served), transparent, and enforceable.
  • Diversity: Police department personnel should be representative of the communities they serve. Police departments must adopt personnel practices that result in the hiring and retention of diverse law enforcement professionals. Using diversity best practices established in other sectors, DOJ must set, implement, and monitor diversity hiring and retention guidelines for local police departments.
  • Engagement: Too often law enforcement personnel hold stereotypes about black and brown youth and vice versa. Lack of familiarity breeds lack of understanding and increased opportunities for conflict. Police departments must break through stereotypes and bias by identifying regular opportunities for constructive and quality engagement with youth living in the communities they serve. The Administration can authorize support for youth engagement activity under existing youth grants issued by DOJ.
  • Demilitarization: Deterring crime and protecting communities should not involve military weaponry. Effective policing strategies and community relationships will not be advanced if police departments continue to act as an occupying force in neighborhoods. The Administration must suspend programs that transfer military equipment into the hands of local police departments and create guidelines that regulate and monitor the use of military equipment that has already been distributed.
  • Examination and Change: It is possible to create police departments that respect, serve and protect all people in the community regardless of age, race, ethnicity, national origin, physical and mental ability, gender, faith, or class. The Administration must quickly establish a national commission to review existing police policies and practices and identify the best policies and practices that can prevent more Fergusons and vastly improve policing in communities across the nation.
  • Oversight: If somebody isn’t tasked with ensuring the implementation of equitable policing in cities across the country, then no one will do the job. The Administration must appoint a federal Czar, housed in the U.S. Department of Justice, who is specifically tasked with promoting the professionalization of local law enforcement, monitoring egregious law enforcement activities, and adjudicating suspicious actions of local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding.

Anyone may ad their name to the letter, which has gathered over 1000 signatures so far.

The dangerous trends that led to events in Ferguson are a reality in many cities, and transform communities into power kegs just waiting for the inevitable spark. The conditions behind events in Ferguson didn’t just happen overnight, and won’t disappear without time, effort, and investment.

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