Ferguson report taps into debate: Should police enforce law or protect people?

In the wake of a federal report on police in Ferguson, Mo., some are musing about what, exactly, the role of police in America is. Many officers indicate they’d welcome more clarity on what they're expected to do.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
A Ferguson, Mo., police officer listens to a protester outside the police station Wednesday, March 4, 2015, in Ferguson. The Justice Department on Wednesday cleared a white former Ferguson police officer in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old, but also issued a scathing report calling for sweeping changes in city law enforcement practices it called discriminatory and unconstitutional.

The US Department of Justice’s conclusion that police in Ferguson, Mo., systematically served an insulated white power structure at the expense of a black underclass goes a long way toward explaining the raw rage that exploded on the streets after the shooting of Michael Brown last August.

But while the circumstances that led to constitutional abuses in Ferguson are in many ways unique to Greater St. Louis, the documentation of bias that affected arrest, search, fines, and incarceration rates in Ferguson reverberates far beyond that particular bend in the Mississippi River – and feeds into an existential debate over the role of police in daily American life.

In nearly every part of the United States where police-community relations are poor, police are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as guardians of a separate authority, rather than protectors of regular folks, policing experts say.

With the effects of implicit bias on policing becoming clearer, and given irrefutable evidence that it happens, there’s a call from liberals and conservatives alike to review the purpose of cops as part of a broader introspection aimed at “figuring out what justice is,” as Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky put it this week.

“Until you have a situation like we’ve seen in Ferguson, there’s often not a lot of thought given to the role of police,” says Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, who has called for police to engage in problem solving with communities rather than enforcing blanket anticrime policies. “One of the reasons that I use the term ‘policing’ as opposed to ‘law enforcement’ is the distinction where, yes, local police do enforce laws, but they have a much broader responsibility than that.” This broader duty is why, he adds, “they’ve historically been called ‘peace officers.' ”

To be sure, it’s clear from more than 20 investigations undertaken by the Department of Justice in the past six years that many police departments struggle to stay within constitutional boundaries, especially in regard to reasonable suspicions that can lead to searches when dealing with people in crime-ridden areas.

Yet, the department’s Ferguson findings are hardly an indictment of American police officers in general. Indeed, US Supreme Court precedents and due process laws protected Darren Wilson from criminal prosecution, with Attorney General Eric Holder saying the best evidence indicated that he fired his weapon lawfully under threat of injury.

Given that policing is “the most complex job in America,” according to Mr. Stephens, many officers themselves want more clarity when it comes to what society and municipalities are expecting them to do. A wish shared by many officers, including some in Ferguson, is to at least partly replace the controversial “stop and frisk” practice with “stop and talk.”

The Department of Justice report quoted several Ferguson officers who wanted to help establish better relations with the black community, but were stymied by bureaucrats. One officer said police are unable to “get out of the car and play basketball with the kids.... We’ve removed all the basketball hoops [because] there’s an ordinance against it.”

Police should, in fact, be “first in line” for a dialogue that will help them understand the concerns of protesters, especially in terms of “the culture of police departments as well as their practices vis-à-vis the law,” says Lewis Walker, a sociologist and race relations expert at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

“The important thing is that we want the community and police to come out and talk about what changes and reforms are really needed,” he says. “We want police themselves to be key players” in the debate.

Confronting and rectifying abuses is important, Mr. Holder said Wednesday, because “the widespread conditions that perceptions [in Ferguson] were based upon, and the climate that gave rise to them, were all too real.”

The Department of Justice report documented municipal authorities asking police to fill budget holes by writing more tickets, and officers complying by competing to see how many tickets they could write per individual traffic stop, which disproportionately involved black drivers. One woman referenced in the report saw two unpaid parking tickets turn into six days in jail and more than $1,000 in fines.

Moreover, the Department of Justice concluded, blacks in Ferguson were twice as likely to be stopped for random searches, but were found with contraband 26 percent less often than were white drivers. And if the city’s largely white police department resorted to force, it was almost certain to visit that force upon a black person, the Department of Justice found. Also, blacks were 68 percent less likely than whites to have fines dismissed by a municipal judge.

The report, writes The Huffington Post’s Riley Roberts, is “a startling portrait of a system that is profoundly broken, an abusive police force that appears to be driven more by profit than by public safety, and a populace that is regularly preyed upon – rather than protected – by local authorities.”

Cops enforcing municipal authority at the expense of citizens is a problem in Ferguson and other communities like it, a recent White House policing task force found. But another thing that can aggravate police-community relations, critics say, is traditional police culture.

According to research by Michigan State University criminologist William Terrill, officers who adhere to “traditional” policing values, including social isolation from citizens and the constant assumption of danger, are more likely to search citizens and use higher levels of force.

At the same time, some legal experts worry that a push by Holder, in his last days in office, to change the due process rights for police officers so that it is easier to prosecute them on civil rights charges is misguided.

“Officers are going to be reactionary to the actions of a suspect,” says Lance LoRusso, an Atlanta attorney and former cop. “Clairvoyance [into the mind-set of suspects] is not one of the categories they push for at the police academy before they send you through."

A more succinct goal for reformers could be a check on broader trends that critics say have pushed American police toward authoritarianism. Courts and the public have repeatedly insisted that police officers have special legal protections, given their unique role as armed proxies for the citizenry. Police tactics and equipment have become increasingly militarized, fueling a sense among many officers that they are at war with residents.

It’s a difficult dynamic to change, but Stephens and others believe the revelations from Ferguson and other such fact-based findings could spark frank introspection into what society really wants from the brave men and women who patrol the country’s toughest streets.

Part of the issue is whether police should focus more on crimes that communities care about rather than enforcing every law on the book.

To ease tensions with communities, “cops can pull back on some [arrests] because the community doesn’t care about jaywalking or misdemeanor drug possession, but the community does care about aggressive subway begging or junkies causing thousands of dollars in damage to steal copper plumbing [so they can get] 20 bucks at the scrap yard,” says Peter Moskos, a former police officer and now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Some believe the Department of Justice has been too reactive to allegations of police abuses, writes Michael Daly at The Daily Beast. “The nationwide outrage over Brown’s murder sparked the DOJ’s investigation into the Ferguson police as a whole. But were it not for that killing, Ferguson likely would have just continued to be a city of civil wrongs,” he opines.

Yet the Department of Justice’s report and soul-searching by communities and police suggest that America is “mustering the courage to have a major reassessment of where we are ... and [to] build a broad-based movement rooted in the awareness of the dignity and humanity of us all,” as Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander recently told the “Democracy Now!” news hour.

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