President’s Too-Modest Proposals Won’t Prevent Another Ferguson

Terrance Heath

As a grand jury in New York decides not to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner with an illegal choke-hold, the president’s too-modest proposals fall short of the change America needs. The problems highlighted by Ferguson require more than body cameras and “oversight” for militarized police departments. President Obama should look to history for the response America needs.

Too-Modest Proposals


On Monday, President Obama met his with Cabinet, civil rights leaders, law enforcement officials and others, to discuss the problems uncovered by the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

The meeting resulted in a set of far too modest proposals.

  • Buy more body cameras for cops. The president is hoping to get Congress to pay $75 million to buy about 50,000 body cameras for the nation’s police officers, as part of a program to provide $263 million in funding to train and equip police departments. The program would provide a 50 percent match for body cameras — which can cost up to $1,000 per unit — purchased by state and local agencies.
  • Reform the program that supplies police departments with military weapons. Instead of ending the Pentagon program that hands out military weapons to the police, the president is hoping to “mend” it. The White House is calling for additional oversight for federal programs that provide surplus military weapons and equipment to law enforcement agencies.

Body cameras can help reduce excessive use of force by police officers. When the police department in Rialto, California, randomly assigned cameras to half of its 54 officers, the use of force dropped by 60 percent. The department’s study found no incidents of camera-wearing officers using force, unless the cameras recorded someone threatening them. Complaints against officers dropped from 24 the previous year to just three during the year of the study.

Body cams aren’t a silver bullet. They raise tricky questions about privacy, both for the officers wearing them and for the people they encounter. Body cams only prevent excessive use of force when they’re turned on. As Jeralyn Blueford wrote, the Oakland police officer who shot and killed her 18-year-old son Alan Blueford turned off his lapel camera just before chasing, shooting, and killing him.

Reforming programs that supply law enforcement agencies with weapons of war is a far cry from ending them. Research shows that the mere presence of weapons increases the likelihood of violence. As the saying goes, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” When a police department is equipped for war, everyone looks like an enemy. Before you know it, 20,000 SWAT teams are forcing their way into people’s homes, brandishing weapons and deploying flashbang grenades — and citizens like 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh, 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley, and U.S. Marine Jose Guerena pay the price.

The Commission the President Should Have Launched in Response to Ferguson


Finally, the White House announced that the president will create a Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which will have 90 days to report its recommendations to reduce crime and increase trust between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. How likely is it that the task force will recommend much more than what the White House has already proposed?

The task force’s mission is too narrow in scope to address the problems behind the making of Ferguson. As Richard Rothstein pointed out , “a century of purposeful federal, state, and local policy,” led to the kind of metropolitan segregation and economic depression that created Ferguson and cities like it all over the country.

This was once well-known history, Rothstein says, that’s somehow been forgotten. President Obama would do well to borrow a page from that history, and revive something like the Kerner Commission.

The Kerner Commission concluded that conditions described b y the Williamses and Adel Allen were typical nation-wide: discriminator y provision of municipal services, police practices reflecting “attempts to ward emasculation of the black man,“ housing discrimination, and much more. Kerner and his colleagues concluded that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

The August “Troubles” in Ferguson suggest that less has changed since 1968 than many Americans think. Yet the government’s response has been to examine Ferguson as an isolated embarrassment, not a reflection of the nation in which it is embedded.

No amount of body cameras, or oversight of programs giving military weapons to the police will solve the problems uncovered by Ferguson, until there’s a fundamental change in the nation in which Ferguson, and the “next Ferguson” are embedded.

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