Ferguson’s main lesson: Foster law on a human scale

Marchers near Florin Road in Sacramento protest the St. Louis County grand jury’s decision Monday night not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.
Marchers near Florin Road in Sacramento protest the St. Louis County grand jury’s decision Monday night not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. mlang@sacbee.com

It is by now the most disheartening of rituals in this country – that morning after the backlash from an outrage involving race and the law.

Nearly every aspect of the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., has been achingly familiar: the white officer, the black kid, the tragedy, the conflicting stories. The protests, the inadequate response, the violence, the federal involvement.

As the nation mopped up Tuesday from demonstrations that swept from New York to Oakland, and prepared for another night of protests, it was hard to know what was most predictable about the grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. The reaction to the killing of the unarmed black teen seemed a foregone conclusion as far back as Aug. 9, when it occurred.

Now, though, the rage has come and gone as predicted, and we must all move on to lessons, the ritual’s next phase. The good news is, these lessons can be learned.

For one, law enforcement agencies should be as diverse as the communities they’re protecting and serving. Although two-thirds of the people in Ferguson are black, the community had only three black police officers on a 53-officer force and only one black elected official in City Hall.

This imperative isn’t limited to small towns in Missouri with preternaturally low voter turnout. The 1992 riots that were touched off in Los Angeles by the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King beating stemmed, in part, from the lack of diversity in that police department. Today, as in L.A.’s general population, blacks comprise about 1 in 10 officers at LAPD, and Latinos are the largest ethnic group on the force.

In Sacramento, however, the police force was 76 percent white at last count, though the city is majority-minority now.

Secondly, police forces take their cues from the cities that hire them. One reason for the distrust between Ferguson’s black community and its police force was the city’s reliance on fines and court fees that compounded for those too poor to pay.

That dynamic isn’t limited to Ferguson, either. Until 2012, authorities throughout California routinely seized the cars of undocumented immigrants at DUI checkpoints, not because the drivers were drunk but because, being undocumented, they lacked a driver’s license. Draconian fees and fines still oppress the poor in many cities and foment distrust of their enforcers, the police.

Third, municipalities need to unload the surplus military equipment, foster real relationships between police and civilians and handle protests with restraint.

Ferguson is notorious now for its images of cops in camo apparel wheeling around in vehicles more suited to war-torn Afghanistan than a St. Louis suburb. But that stuff, as it turned out, was being dispensed to law enforcement agencies all over the country, making the police look and feel more like an occupying force than a civilizing presence.

One reason most demonstrations beyond Ferguson didn’t get violent was that most big city police departments know how not to invite it. From injuries to liability to just getting along, as Rodney King termed it, cities have everything to gain from keeping their law enforcement at a human scale.

There are broader lessons as well, among them that this nation must, must, must re-examine its attitude toward young black men, who are shot by police at a staggering rate. In his almost bizarre account of the Ferguson shooting, the 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound officer talked about 290-pound Brown as if he were scarcely human, saying he looked like a “demon” and made him feel “like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.”

There will be more lessons from this sad event as federal investigators develop their findings and the community conducts its own reviews. Here’s hoping that as Ferguson absorbs them, it will be a teachable moment for the rest of us, too.