The Lessons of Ferguson


The events in Ferguson, MO that set off a national firestorm over aggressive policing in African-American communities shouldn't have come as a surprise, Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forte said yesterday.

“Nobody should be shocked about Ferguson,” Forte told the Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

“We have a great relationship in Kansas City, but I think it could happen (here), we're not out of the woods.”

Speaking to an audience of journalists, researchers and criminal justice practitioners, Forte said that he and others in the field recognized that police-community relations were approaching a boiling point long before the explosion of tensions nationwide following the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by former Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014

He pointed to widely used police tactics that he said make communities feel targeted by police, instead of protected.

Among those, he said drug sweeps — in which police typically make mass arrests in a particular neighborhood or building — can harm a police department's reputation.

“Sweeps are one of the worst things we've ever done in law enforcement … the violence the police inflict can be incredible,” Forte said.

After a year marked by a string of high-profile incidents in which unarmed black men were killed by police officers, communities and police departments with fraught relationships have begun a long-overdue effort to reexamine the criminal justice system, experts and officials told the conference.

Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said sweeps have long been a tool for police departments keen on impressing the media with grand shows of force against “the bad guys.”

But those sweeps have long targeted poor, predominantly minority communities, Walker said—with the result that white Americans and black Americans often have vastly different perspectives on police tactics.

“We have two worlds of experience with police, there's an enormous racial divide in that regard,” Walker said.

Changing the 'Culture of Policing'

Cincinnati community leader Iris Roley, who helped craft that city's “Collaborative Agreement” negotiated between police and residents in 2002 after a series of police shootings, said police aren't often eager to embrace reforms.

“It's very difficult to create change in the culture of policing,” Roley said.

For decades, police have focused on tallying arrests in communities with “excruciating levels of violence,” observed David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College.

But far too often, he added, that has meant funneling young black men through a pipeline that ends with incarceration.

“It is an awful fact that that if you are a black male who does not finish high school, you have a 70% percent chance … of going to prison,” said Kennedy, who is founder and director of the National Network of Safe Communities, an alliance of cities aimed at improving police-community relations.

Officials with law enforcement and corrections departments from across the nation said jails and prisons have become a repository for far too many individuals booked for nonviolent crimes, or who suffer mental illness or substance addiction.

Half of the inmates in federal prison are incarcerated for drug-related offenses, said Carnegie Mellon University professor Alfred Blumstein, and a former president of the American Society of Criminology.

And local jails have become de-facto treatment centers for the mentally ill. Many who work in corrections came unprepared for the task of handling those with mental illness, said New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte.

New York City's Rikers Island detention center, the largest jail in the country (which actually encompasses nine separate facilities), was the focus of a recent state investigation (and may face a federal probe) into the death of a mentally ill inmate who was found naked and covered in feces after being locked in a cell for six days.

Ponte, who was appointed commissioner a year after 2013 incident, said he's instituted mental health training for corrections officers.

“Someone who's mentally ill will respond differently than just your average inmate,” Ponte said, adding that the corrections officer job description currently makes no mention of working with mentally ill inmates.

That's because jails were originally designed as holding facilities for the most violent offenders, said Cara Smith, the executive director for the Cook County, Ill., Department of Corrections.

“My preference is to have a jail full of maximum security felony defendants, everyone else should go someplace else,” Smith said.

But many speakers noted that the task of shrinking the nation's incarcerated population — by far the largest in the world, by both per capita and total measures — is often hampered by a group of people known for dragging their feet: politicians.

In some ways, criminal justice reform is a subject that unites elected leaders from both ends of the political spectrum. Many conservative politicians see a fiscally bloated government system and many liberals point to social injustice.

Unfortunately, that's not enough to spark action, said Mark Earley, a Republican former Virginia Attorney General, who said criminal justice reform — especially at the federal level — is often stalled by a classic political stalemate.

“I think the Republicans won't go along with it if it's led by Democrats,” Earley said.

“And the Democrats will be afraid of (repercussions) if the Republicans don't go along with it.”

EDITORS NOTE: for continued coverage of the Guggenheim Symposium, please check out The Crime Report throughout this week.

Graham Kates is Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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