The Real Story of Ferguson


What we're seeing in Ferguson, Mo. — with its stunningly provocative, potentially deadly, militarized response to citizen protest-marches and a minor civil disturbance — is really the story of American policing circa 2014.

It's been a time of police abuses that was foreshadowed in 2011. That year —after an almost decade-long record of misuse of its stop-question-and-frisk policy, the New York City Police Department engaged in so many stops of young black men aged 14-24 that the number exceeded the entire city population of young black men in the city. That is, 106 percent of this group were stopped and frisked.

That same year, 2011, we also saw, captured on tape, a combat-ready and militarily armed Miami-Dade SWAT team deliberately execute three home invasion robbers and their informant on the spot during a controlled drug sting. The robbers were awful people, but the cops, like soldiers on patrol, were taking no prisoners.

Fast forward to 2014 and the chokehold death in New York's Staten Island, of Eric Garner, who was allegedly stopped by police for illegally selling cigarettes, and the execution-style killing by Albuquerque, New Mexico police officers of homeless, mentally ill, 38-year-old James Boyd, whose initial crime was camping out illegally in the desert.

And now Ferguson, where we've seen cops dressed in over-the-top, combat-ready army camouflage gear, driving armored vehicles, and carrying assault weapons aggressively trained on peaceful demonstrators.

Meanwhile, we've also been witnessing another form of abuse of power by the police: the arrogant refusal of the Ferguson Police Department to obey the law and release any information on the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown—a refusal which sparked Ferguson's demonstrations.

In a very similar vein, a Los Angeles Times investigation recently revealed that the new, “reformed” Los Angeles Police Department has been deliberately cooking the crime books, downgrading nearly 1200 violent felony crimes committed in LA to minor offenses, so they presumably can keep bragging about the city's constantly falling serious crime rate.

What all these abuses of power tell us is that American policing is once again in crisis. The last time this happened was in the early 1990s, when the crack wars were raging, Americans were obsessed with high crime rates. The aggressive response of police particularly in poor black and brown communities brought tensions to a simmering boil.

Then, through the efforts of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, community policing — with its emphasis on working in partnership with local residents, enhancing neighborhood stability and cohesion, and establishing legitimacy within those communities — was introduced. And in the years since then, in racially-scarred cities like Los Angeles, community policing has seemed to ease the mutual distrust between police and poor people of color.

Simultaneously, William Bratton, who first became New York's Police Commissioner in 1994, launched the pioneering policing strategies that made him famous: tight, broken windows police enforcement, hot-spot policing, and command accountability and responsibility for lowering crime that filtered down to the division and local precinct-level.

Soon the now historic and dramatic 20-year plunge in crime began, and continues to this day.

But what 2014 is proving is that beyond that decline, some of these “reforms” are causing as many problems as they're solving; and that others, like the militarization of policing are attacking the very soul of law enforcement in a free, democratic society.

New York, with its still recent stop-question-and-frisk excesses has shown us what happens when the police are set free—or worse, actually encouraged with a wink-and-a-nod from their leaders, to utterly disregard the Fourth Amendment and treat as perpetual criminal suspects an entire generation of poor, young black and brown men.

Policing by the numbers, while an important gauge of a police department's success, has shown us in Los Angeles how it can lead to lies, to cooking the books, and to allowing serious violent felonies to be filed as misdemeanors—distorting not just reality, but justice.

The deaths of Eric Garner, James Boyd and Michael Brown has shown what broken windows policing can and does lead to: constant challenging by the police, confrontations between the police and citizens who know they've done little if anything wrong, and arrests for the most minor of crimes.

In part, it was exactly that kind of policing that was beyond the rage that fueled the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

The Ferguson and the Miami-Dade SWAT officers, meanwhile, have shown us that the militarization of American policing has fostered a potentially terrible cancer in our society.

It's financing has come about — as Elizabeth R. Beavers and Michael Shank recently wrote in the New York Times – because of the donation of $4 billion in surplus military equipment by the U.S. Defense Department to police departments around the county, and by $34 billion in “'terrorism grants” by the Department of Homeland Security.

What we're learning is that obtaining all this all military equipment will lead to its use. We should have known. That's the nature of American police departments — which are closed societies always proudly looking inward , and filled with military veterans and wanna-be's weaned on wars on drugs and crime and terrorism, and in a culture that venerates the gun.

Hand-in-hand in with that para-military attitude, many police departments still believe that doing the hard work of crime prevention through community policing is somehow “social work”—not real police work.

It's no surprise that the acquisition of all that free war equipment has fostered the kind of warrior-cop mentality that the old LAPD – which invented the SWAT team –was so notorious for, and that such a mentality is now in such absurd, shocking evidence in so many U.S. towns and cities.

The figures tell the story: in the mid-1980s, there were 2,000 to 3,000 military-style no-knock raids a year. By 2010, the number had risen to between to 70,000 to 80,000. SWAT teams that had been deployed an average of 3,000 times annually in the early 1980s would be deployed 45,000 times by 2010 – often on terrifying, small-time drug raids and searches based on unsubstantiated tips from informants.

Ferguson is as much a wakeup call as the deaths of Garner and Boyd.

It underlines how far out of touch American policing is from the communities it serves. The nation is no longer demanding law and order. Crime is no longer the American people's number one domestic concern. Nor should it be, with crime at record lows. What most people across the political spectrum now want is fair, proportional, common-sense policing.

We see that in our politics. At a time when Democrats and Republicans can agree on very little, one subject they have been uniting around is the progressive reform of the criminal justice system. Conservatives have been just as critical of the police in Ferguson as liberals.

Many of today's cops, and the politicians that enable them, seem, however, the last people to get the word

Joe Domanick is associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay and West Coast Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. His new book, Blue: The Ruin and Redemption of the LAPD will be published by Simon & Schuster in February 2015. He welcomes comments from readers.

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