Before Aug. 9, 2014, most people had never heard of Ferguson, Mo., let alone their police department. That all changed when Ferguson PD Officer Darren Wilson and 18-year-old Michael Brown crossed paths in an encounter that left Brown dead. What happened in Ferguson could have happened in many communities and there are plenty of lessons to be learned:
1. Things are seldom as they seem. Brown had been involved in a strong-arm robbery shortly before he was contacted by Wilson. According to Ferguson’s police chief, Wilson did not have this information and contacted Brown because he was walking in the middle of the street. Consider how this may have affected Wilson’s readiness.
2. Conducting contact from the car puts you at a distinct disadvantage. Best information indicates Brown aggressively engaged Wilson and a fight, as well as the first shot fired, took place in Wilson’s car.
3. Appearance of insensitivity. After the shooting, Brown’s body lay in the street in full view of passersby for a prolonged period. While there may have been some evidentiary rationale, there are ways to maintain crime scene integrity while preventing a public viewing. A forensic screen would have gone a long way to mitigate what appeared to be callous insensitivity.
4. Appearances are important. Much has been made of the high-powered long guns and armored vehicles that were brought into this situation. Obviously, it’s important to be ready and capable. However, the images of officers in turrets pointing rifles at protesters were shown repeatedly and caused a lot of questions to be asked. In fact, the entire 1033 program (repurposing military equipment) has been called into question, with multiple congressional hearings scheduled and calls to gut the program. This would be a huge step backward for law enforcement. Every situation is different, but we lost ground on this one.
5. It’s best to under promise and over deliver. Shortly after Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson arrived in Ferguson, he proclaimed an end to tear gas. That didn’t hold and there were some tough nights that followed. It is likely that Johnson’s actions will be discussed for a long time.
6. Develop community alliances before you have a problem. It’s virtually impossible to gain community support when battle lines have already been drawn. The time to build alliances is before things go south. Seek out community leaders, build bridges and—this is important—actively use social media before you have a problem. When an incident occurs, leverage social media to put out your message quickly and without media filters.
7. There will be a rush to judgment. This is an area over which you have little control, but you can ensure that you provide timely and informative updates that are clear, concise and complete to the extent possible.
8. Race matters. The days of racial divide should be behind us, but they’re not and Ferguson demonstrated that in almost visceral ways. More than two-thirds of Ferguson’s 20,000+ residents are black, yet there are only three black officers and more than 50 white officers. A police force, in general, should strive to reflect its community or at least demonstrate a commitment to do so. It is understandable that some would feel disenfranchised. Would a higher percentage of black officers on the PD have made a difference in the shooting itself? Probably not, but it may have engendered a higher level of trust and confidence, areas that are essential when a critical incident occurs.
9. Technology might have made a difference. There’s been a lot of discussion regarding body-worn video since Ferguson. Although some officers resist the idea, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, more often than not, police video vindicates an officer, or at least provides greater context.
What happened in Ferguson will affect law enforcement in this country for a long time. Challenge yourself to understand the issues and engage proactively. The effort will be worthwhile.
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