For nearly four months, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., has captivated the nation. On any issue like this one that involves race, Americans look to our first black president, Barack Obama, along with his attorney general, Eric Holder, for leadership.
Have they delivered? The picture is mixed.
Obama and Holder certainly have talked a lot about the case, culminating in three White House meetings this past Monday.
Holder also has visited Ferguson, although the President chose not to travel there this week.
There also has been some action. Holder started a civil-rights investigation of police officer Darren Wilson's killing of the unarmed Brown. But it seems unlikely that a federal probe will result in a criminal charge, if a state grand jury would not charge Wilson with a crime .
More significantly, the Department of Justice (DOJ) is conducting a “pattern and practice” investigation of the Ferguson Police Department that seems likely to result in a “Collaborative Reform Initiative” agreement which will end up making changes in local police practices, akin to a similar process that DOJ carried out in Las Vegas and is pursuing in other areas.
This work is being led by Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), which held a two-day “fair and impartial policing” training session last month in St. Louis County for local police officials. The session was conducted by criminologist Lorie Fridell of the University of South Florida, a national expert on racially biased policing, and Noble Wray, a retired Chief of Police from the Madison, Wisconsin, Police Department.
While the “collaborative reform” effort probably will yield some results, does much of Obama's work related to Ferguson amount to talk?
Consider this description by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank of what happened after Monday's closed White House meetings: “Obama invited the cameras into the room and announced that he had decided . . . to talk some more. He created a task force to spend 90 days studying police 'best practices.' “
The St. Louis County grand jury decision not to charge Wilson “has given Obama another opportunity to show strong and decisive presidential leadership,” Milbank continues. “And, once again, Obama is using the bully pulpit like a 98-pound weakling. If any more chin-stroking goes on at this White House, the president's advisers are going to have chafe marks on their jawbones.”
Was that a fair indictment?
One important point to make is that most law enforcement in the United States is a state and local responsibility. There are more than 17,000 policing agencies and few national standards other than constitutional rights defined by the courts, and minimum requirements imposed for agencies to obtain federal aid.
So the White House is limited in what it can do on local policing problems.
Still, let's take a quick look at Monday's Obama actions.
Many critics had focused on the “militarized” response to the unrest in Ferguson, including the use of surplus Pentagon equipment by local police. The Obama administration initially joined the expressions of concern but on Monday, the President essentially took the police view that most of the military equipment use by police is legitimate.
Then there is the “best practices” task force noted by Milbank. International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) president Richard Beary expressed the hope that the panel's work would reflect the forthcoming conclusions of a national “summit on community-police relations” sponsored by IACP in October.
The task force's three-month time frame is lightning speed by Washington standards. It's worth noting that the administration seemingly rejected the IACP's longstanding proposal to establish a national commission on criminal justice similar to the Lyndon Johnson-era commission of the 1960s that established important justice-system benchmarks for years to come.
Finally, there is a proposed three-year $263 million “investment package” that would help purchase up to 50,000 body-worn cameras for police officers, expand law enforcement training and enable the Justice Department to “facilitate community and local law enforcement agency engagement.”
If Congress approves it, the funds could help many local police departments do their jobs better. It's more than just talk, but spread out over three years and many thousands of agencies, it hardly can solve all or even most deficiencies of local policing.
In a time of tight budgets, it may be all that Washington is willing to do right now about improving policing around the nation.
Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists, and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.