Sacramento mayor is leading the way on Ferguson

Mayor Kevin Johnson has helped host a series of community forums on the fallout from Ferguson.
Mayor Kevin Johnson has helped host a series of community forums on the fallout from Ferguson. aseng@sacbee.com

You can fault Mayor Kevin Johnson for some things, but his response to Ferguson is not among them.

He quickly convened a series of community forums after the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown to make sure that racial unrest wouldn’t come to Sacramento. And when the announcement came last week that a grand jury did not indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, he only said what many were thinking – it was “just a sad day for America,” given our nation’s history of racial injustice.

It’s absurd for the Sacramento police union to suggest that Johnson’s reaction was somehow “a complete slap in the face to law enforcement throughout the nation.”

To be helpful, here’s what the Sacramento Police Officers Association can do: Be a willing and active participant in making sure the police force is more representative of our city’s diversity – one of the most important lessons from Ferguson.

Of Sacramento’s 600-plus sworn officers, only about 4 percent are African American, compared to a city population that is 15 percent African American. In contrast, about 75 percent of officers are white, while Sacramento’s population is about 45 percent white.

Remedying that imbalance is not going to be easy, or as quick as many want. To his credit, Police Chief Sam Somers is tackling this issue head-on. He is creating a cadet program in local high schools to start a pipeline of potential officers. The department is also stepping up recruitment efforts, sending representatives over the weekend to the Bayou Classic – the annual football game in New Orleans between Grambling State and Southern, two well-known historically black universities.

Hiring a more diverse and better-trained police force was one of the major issues raised during the four community meetings, including the one in Oak Park last Monday, when 250 people saw the grand jury’s decision announced on live TV.

On Monday, President Barack Obama devoted his schedule to the fallout from Ferguson, meeting with civil rights leaders, law enforcement officials and others. He proposed a $263 million package to increase the use of body-worn cameras and improve training for police, and also created a Task Force on 21st Century Policing to make police partners with their communities in fighting crime.

Those are welcome steps. But the hard and necessary work of building more trust between law enforcement and residents will mostly happen on the ground in towns and cities across the country.

Johnson says that “we in Sacramento have to lead by example.” As the city’s first black mayor and as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Johnson can be an important voice. So far, he has been.