The outpouring of protests that has flowed from grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo. and New York leave a question hanging about the motives of the protesters. If the gatherings purpose is to provide an outlet for frustration, mission accomplished. If their intent is to provoke an emotional response and obscure the conduct involved or define it in racial terms, mission accomplished. If the goal is a movement that would bring law enforcement in and work with them to make changes in equipment, tactics, and training the protesters and their supporters haven’t got there yet. The spate of officer involved shootings have created momentum for change, but they are not the only events with the potential to undermine the justice system. Grand jury witnesses who retract statements, contradict themselves in testimony, or have to admit to changing testimony to fit physical evidence have the same effect. The Associated Press reviewed testimony in the Michael Brown case and found all three. The figures produced by a ProPublica survey have the same potential. They reviewed 1,217 police shootings from 2010-2012 and found that African-Americans aged 15-19 were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million and that their white peers were killed at a rate of 1.47 per million. The disparity is stunning. Is it prima-facie evidence of racism? No.
This is where tactics, training, and basic circumstances have to be considered. Police work in all kinds of neighborhoods. Some have a higher crime rate and a greater concentration of poor, minority citizens. The police who patrol towns like Ferguson are separated from them and spend more time in their cars or behind their desks. If the officers don’t know the people in the community who work, take their kids to soccer practice, and help them with their homework, only see people from the inside of a car, and are going from one trouble call to the next it’s easy to see how a siege mentality can develop. If the officers are white and a pistol is their first method of responding to a confrontation the outcome for a certain number of these events is written before they happen; another life lost, another grieving family, another anguished community. Any new officer brought into a similar environment is bound to develop a similar perspective, changing the racial mix of officers in a particular city does nothing to change the it. This offers no justification for looting or vandalism, all they do is pay the hurt forward, but it is easy to understand how suspicion and resentment can build up among people subjected to that kind of treatment on a regular basis.
What is important to keep in mind going forward is that the Department of Justice is already reviewing events in Ferguson and New York as possible civil rights violations. In light of that any calls for more extensive federal intervention should be tabled; as for the district attorneys in both cities, they should release as much of the evidence, transcripts, and other paperwork produced as possible. St. Louis county prosecutor Bob McCulloch already has released thousands of pages, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan has not been as open about the proceedings of a grand jury that met for nine weeks, heard testimony from 50 witnesses, and considered 60 exhibits. That should change. If it does not Mr. Donovan owes New Yorker’s a good explanation as to why. Police equipment is coming up as the next area of interest, and lapel cameras are gaining traction as a popular option. Another worth considering is the standard issue sidearm, maybe an alternative alongside it that would not have taken the life of Tamir Rice in Cleveland or Ezell Ford in Los Angeles. There are answers out there. The search for them could lead to greater use of community policing, more transparency in use of force investigations, civilian oversight, maybe even that conversation on race pundits are always talking about. Just as long as participants can agree to leave the bullhorn at home.