Watching Ferguson brought back many memories. It was April, 1968 and I was lined up on Plymouth Avenue in Minneapolis as a member of the police tactical squad. Buildings were on fire. Shots were heard. Some close. That night across America, rioting erupted in over a 100 American cities.
The incident? Civil Rights Leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated in Memphis and fires burned in many cities including the once I was sworn to protect.
That night, we wanted to maintain order. My squad had shotguns at the ready and were just about to move down the street when my commander got the word: Do not proceed forward. Stand-down.
At the time I was angry. How can this happen and we, the police, are told not to step in and stop it?
A five short years later, I knew my city’s mayor and commander made the right decision as I took over command of the Madison (Wisc.) police and had to make some of my own tough decisions between whether to protect property at the expense of people.
The year 1968 was the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Black anger was present in almost every police encounter throughout the country. A year before Dr. King was slain, President Johnson formed a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders chaired by Gov. Otto Kerner of Illinois (called “The Kerner Commission”). They were asked to answer three important questions about these racial disturbances throughout the country: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?
Let’s not forget what that 11-member commission stated — and that’s my deja vu: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” Unless conditions were remedied, our nation faced a “system of ’apartheid” in its major cities.
The report delivered an indictment of white society for isolating and neglecting African Americans and urged legislation to promote racial integration and enrich slums—primarily through the creation of jobs, job training programs, and decent housing. President Johnson, however, rejected the recommendations.
The commission also noted that the average police officer saw the city through the windshield of a squad car and heard about its activities over a police radio. Police were isolated from the communities they policed. To read the entire Kerner Commission report CLICK HERE.
Thirty years after the issuance of the Report, former Senator and Commission member Fred R. Harris co-authored a study that found the racial divide had grown in the ensuing years with inner-city unemployment at crisis levels. (Read more about that study HERE.)
During this same era, the National Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice released their report on police – and especially the need for police-community relations units and police officers being more connected to the communities they police – a forerunner to a focus on community oriented policing. To read their report CLICK HERE.
I have these questions today for our nation’s cities lest we have more Fergusons:
- What on-going relational mechanisms do you have which place police in close contact with neighborhoods, schools, and other centers of civic life?
- What trusted mechanisms do you have in place to resolve citizen complaints regarding the conduct of police?
- Are you recruiting your “best and brightest” to serve as your police? Are they well-educated and trained, controlled in their use of force, honest, and courteous to everyone?
- What is the policy (and pre and in-service training) of your police officers with regard to the use of force when having to make an arrest or control a violent or mentally ill person? Are they consistent with public expectations?
- How diverse is your police department? What is the percentage of women and officers of color? Do they reflect the community? If not, what are you doing to make your police department more diverse?
- Do you have officers assigned to critical neighborhoods that have responsibility for that neighborhood regardless of the time of day?
- How connected and participative is your chief of police and your police officers with the many cultures present in your community (African-American, Native American, Hispanic, Asian, others?)
- When was the last time you conducted a survey of community attitudes toward your police department – especially from those who have received police services and even those who have been arrested?
When you get the answers to these questions you need to openly talk about them community-wide and then begin to ACT on what you have found. Step-by-step it is possible to re-build trust. But it will take time, commitment, perseverance, and GUTS!