Police shootings in Ferguson raise stakes in city's efforts to clean house

Two police officers were shot at a protest Thursday, escalating tensions in the St. Louis suburb further. In addition to resignations, like the former police chief's, experts say longer-terms reforms are needed to address decades-old grievances.

Lawrence Bryant/St. Louis American/Reuters
Police officers respond to a fellow officer hit by gunfire outside the Ferguson Police Headquarters in Ferguson, Missouri Thursday. Two police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, were shot early on Thursday in what officials called an ambush following months of acute tensions over relations between police and minority groups in the St. Louis suburb.

The shooting of two police officers at a protest in Ferguson, Mo., early Thursday put an emerging fact in even starker relief: Simply cutting controversial figures from the city’s payroll isn't likely to solve the city's problems.

The two officers had responded to protests that erupted in the wake of the resignation of Police Chief Thomas Jackson and were hit by gunfire shortly after midnight. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said the shots came from a throng of protesters, but some participants denied that, saying the shots came from farther away, from the top of a small hill.

While details of the shooting remain unclear, the serious injuries sustained by two innocent policemen underscore what United States Attorney General Eric Holder called a “toxic” situation in Ferguson earlier this month. According to Mr. Holder, the underpinnings of the anger can be tied to a local practice of using police as a shakedown force to raise city revenues, with poor African-Americans disproportionately bearing the brunt. 

To force reforms, the Justice Department has threatened to dismantle the Ferguson Police Department. For his part, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles insists the city is taking steps to correct the flaws exposed by the Department of Justice report that spawned Holder's comments.

Some sort of intervention from the state or federal government might become necessary to address decades-old racial grievances, says Martha Jones, a University of Michigan history professor and co-director of the Michigan Law Program in Race, Law & History.

“There’s something important and symbolic in the stepping down of a regime in Ferguson, but without more sustained and systemic reform in Ferguson it’s difficult to imagine that simply replacing one police chief with another leads to the kind of substantive transformation that many advocates hope for,” she says.

Part of the process already has begun with the Justice Department report, which laid out facts that revealed a kind of racial oppression that has shocked parts of America that wanted to believe that the country had largely transcended race, says Charles Gallagher, a sociologist at La Salle University in Philadelphia. The subsequent firings and resignations suggest that the report is having an effect.

In that way, the federal government has a large role to play in continuing to right racial wrongs in Missouri, Professor Gallagher adds.

“You have to document and chronicle how thoroughly racist the treatment of this group was – that’s the call America needs to hear,” says Gallagher. “We may have a black president, but we also have deep, systemic problems that haven’t been addressed. And to do that, you can’t have the people that are part of a [racist institution] being the ones that are going to change the culture.”

But further steps might be necessary, too. Professor Jones points to truth and reconciliation commissions in cities such as Greensboro, N.C., and Tulsa, Okla. The Tulsa commission was convened in 1997, more than 75 years after the 1921 race riots in which a white mob killed 300 people in the predominantly black neighborhood of Greenwood. The Greensboro commission convened 20 years after white supremacists killed five black men at an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally in 1979.

While Ferguson has not yet had time to put this summer's police shooting of Michael Brown and the following protests into perspective, a reconciliation commission could be a part of that process. Resignations might not be as potent a means for change as the ability to air grievances and feel they are being heard.

The continuing tensions in Ferguson stem from the death last August of Mr. Brown at the hands of Darren Wilson, now a former Ferguson police officer. The shooting and its aftermath sparked a “powder keg” of racial resentment, Mr. Holder said last week. While the officer was eventually found to have acted in legitimate self-defense, the protesters were correct in their claims of racial discrimination, he said.

To address concerns outlined in a blistering 102-page Justice Department report, the city has fired or accepted resignations from six city employees, including a court clerk; a municipal court judge who showed little mercy toward people who couldn’t pay fines even as he had racked up $172,000 in back taxes to the federal government; the powerful city manager, John Shaw, who had pushed officers to write more tickets in order to raise revenue; and, on Wednesday, Police Chief Tom Jackson, whose handling of the Brown shooting only seemed to stoke protests.

Last week, President Obama noted that the kind of racially biased policies in Ferguson exist in other parts of the country, as well, highlighting a need for broader policing reforms.

Nevertheless, the roots of Ferguson’s problems are woven deeply into the history of St. Louis County, which some historians say has never truly reckoned with its racist past, including efforts over centuries to physically keep black people out of “white” areas. Fueling the tension is a balkanized system of government, where 89 small municipalities, divided largely by race, dot Greater St. Louis.

“The geography of almost every US city reveals at least some degree of segregation, but in St. Louis, the break between races – and privilege – is particularly drastic,” Chico Harlan of the Washington Post wrote last year. That racially defined geographic divide, he added, “stems from a legacy of segregation – legal and illegal – and more recent economic stratification that has had the effect of reinforcing racial separation.”

The Department of Justice report underscored that divide as it found latent racist attitudes at work within city government, expressed in jokes about the president and the first lady, as well as a municipal court system that, in essence, used police as shakedown enforcers. Instead of acknowledging the situation as racially abusive, city officials defended their disproportionate actions against African-Americans by saying that black people “lack personal responsibility,” the report said.

Chief Jackson, in particular, had emerged as a controversial figure. His initial decision to withhold Mr. Wilson’s name and then releasing it along with a video showing Brown allegedly stealing cigars and manhandling a store clerk arguably worsened the tension. When Jackson apologized to the family for leaving Brown’s body in the street for so long, it was seen by Brown’s family as too little, too late. Attempts by Jackson to meet with protesters after the apology sparked brawls.

Protesters, for one, say they’re not satisfied with the city’s response so far. Before the shootings, The New York Times's John Eligon reports, the protests were “as much a celebration of Chief Jackson’s resignation as it was a call for more action.”

“Not just Jackson, we want Knowles, Ferguson has got to go!” protesters yelled, referencing the mayor.

In the short term, the shootings are likely to further temper an already hard divide.

“These police officers were standing there and they were shot, just because they were police officers," Chief Belmar said. "I have said all along that we cannot sustain this forever without problems."

Whether the shooter or shooters were protesters or agitators is still unclear. A manhunt was under way Thursday. But the incident threatened ongoing efforts to ease the anger that still simmers in the wake of Brown’s death.

“People in Ferguson are justifiably angry, and the idea is, you need to clean house, and … really do a lot of work to heal the rift between the police and the community,” says Gallagher. “But it’s a step backwards when you have people resorting to violence.”

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