What went wrong in Ferguson? The short answer is: everything.
I’m not talking about the killing of Michael Brown. A tragedy, whatever the facts. But what the facts are is something we don’t yet know. There are two conflicting stories: one of an unarmed teenager shot six times while his hands were in the air; the other of an aggressive man who, unbeknown to police had just robbed a local store (of a box of cigars) and was shot after he attacked the police officer in the police car. Both cannot be true. However much some people might want to protect the officer, there are too many people watching, starting with the president of the United States, to do that if he is in the wrong. On the other hand, if the teenager attacked the police officer, then the officer must be protected from unfair punishment. Justice will have to be done.
Having a black president and a black attorney general should help. If Ferguson had similar representation in its own police force, we might not all be writing about this.
Twenty-two years ago, Los Angeles, where I lived, erupted in riots after the acquittal of white police officers that had been charged with beating a black man, Rodney King. We had looting and rioting and curfews. We had a police department that was overwhelming white, largely divorced from the community it was policing, a white police chief who didn’t speak to the black mayor, a police department so mistrusted by the community that O.J. Simpson managed to get acquitted two years later.
Two weeks ago, an unarmed black man, some say seriously mentally ill, was killed by LAPD officers. A few hundred people rallied peacefully on a weekend afternoon. If I weren’t paying so much attention to the Brown story, I might have missed it.
And why not? The police commission will surely review the police investigation. This is a different city now. The police department, to a degree unimaginable back then, reflects the city. We have a white chief because we passed the point of “needing” a black chief as a symbol of a white department. Since the bad old days, we’ve had two black chiefs and two white ones.
How could Ferguson be so far behind the times, when, frankly, Los Angeles came late to the understanding that community policing by a police force that reflects and is part of the community is the most effective technique for restoring order, reducing crime and decreasing fear. Why is it — after years of “black flight” to suburbs like Ferguson as the “white flight” went to the exurbs — that some three of the 53 police officers in a town that is 67 percent black are black? Think about it. The town is 67 percent black and the police department, including the chief, is 94 percent white.
So when an unarmed black teenager is shot, you get thousands of people protesting in a small town (compared to only hundreds in the nation’s second largest city). You get the police overreacting, which makes things worse. You get a community divided, and lots of good reasons, some having nothing in particular to do with Michael Brown, for people to be angry. You get a young man whose death may or may not be the product, in part, of that very atmosphere of distrust and resentment. You get a young police officer whose career is, rightly or wrongly, ruined, and whose life is also being threatened. And you get a stark reminder that the fact that the country has a black president and a black attorney general comes in handy in a time like this, not because of how far we’ve come, but precisely because we have not come far enough.
— Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.