America can learn a lot from the Ferguson situation, that is, if we’re willing to

The American public is relearning many lessons from the events in Ferguson following the shooting of an unarmed teenager by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  The three biggest takeaways from this tragedy and its aftermath are:

  1. We have gone way too far in militarizing our local police forces.
  2. There is still rampant institutional racism built into our policing and criminal justice system.
  3. The police and criminal justice system does itself and the people it is supposed to protect a disservice by never admitting a mistake.

The ramifications of these big picture dynamics affect more than the relationship between authorities and the citizens they protect. Going too far in militarizing our police, for example, results partially from the political cowardice and cronyism that led Congress to give every state a cut of the money we dedicated to fighting terrorism in the USA Patriot Act instead of focusing the money on those areas and systems most vulnerable to terrorist attack, i.e., New York, Washington, D.C. and our docks and harbors. Of course, the opportunity for American manufacturers to sell to local police forces with money supplied by the feds was too good for the crony capitalists who run our country to pass up. The result—local police everywhere now own all kinds of military equipment that they don’t need and, which, when used, only make a sensitive street situation more volatile. The number of SWAT team attacks has skyrocketed across the country, as have the number of SWAT invasions directed at the wrong address.  I’m thinking that the money spent on military-grade guns and vehicles might have been better spent in the recruitment and training of minority police officers and the introduction of less violent ways to confront suspects.

Ferguson is only the latest proof that minorities and the poor get treated badly by the criminal justice system across the country.  As Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator and professor of sociology at The New School, pointed out in a New York Times opinion piece, Ferguson does the same kind of racial profiling that the courts have made New York City stop doing.  In Ferguson last year, 86 percent of police stops, 92 percent of searches and 93 percent of arrests were of African-Americans, numbers which are way out line with the percentage of the total Ferguson population that they represent, which is about 62%. Even more damning is the fact that police officers were far less likely to find contraband on African-Americans, 22 percent of whom were carrying something illegal, compared to 34 percent of whites.

It’s almost painful to see the Ferguson police chief try to justify the actions of his department. For example, instead of thanking the Governor for bringing in the Highway Patrol and National Guard and installing a charismatic African-American to be the face of the police response, Chief Tom Jackson prefers to complain about the insult to the Ferguson police that the switch in authorities and tactics represented.

Instead of admitting he was wrong to bring out the tanks, the Ferguson police chief released information meant to stain the reputation of the young man who was shot six times, including twice in the head. First it was news that the boy was a suspect in a robbery, which the officer who fired the shots was decent enough to admit he didn’t know when the confrontation occurred. Now we’ve learned that the boy—Michael Brown—had marijuana in his system. So what? It wouldn’t matter if he was a suspect in 30 armed robberies and they found traces of cocaine, heroin, Oxycontin and meth in his body. An experienced police office trained in protecting the public and probably in martial arts fired six bullets into his body. One or maybe two bullets and I—and the rest of the public—could understand the act as possibly, maybe necessary. But six??  The officer should get his due process, but the police department would advance the cause of better understanding between police and minorities by admitting its mistakes and stating that it will not support officers who behave brutally or illegally.

But closing ranks isn’t new for the criminal justice system. Several times a year we read of district attorneys who are opposed to new trials or the release of the unjustly imprisoned, or those who will fight tooth and nail to insist that a retarded or near retarded death row prisoner has a high enough IQ to qualify for the death penalty. We recently saw the union representing New York City police department cry that is was unfair to investigate the death of an innocent man from a police choke hold. The union also bemoaned the lack of solidarity of the teachers’ union to participate in a march against police brutality.  The union made itself look bad by not explicitly stating that it did not support the use of chokeholds, which is an illegal tactic for police in New York State.

People and organizations make mistakes. Organizations occasionally hire individuals who won’t follow the rules or make their own rules. When you admit your mistake and then fix it, you gain the respect of others. When you hunker down and defend your position even after it painfully clear you were wrong, others begin to disrespect you and question your authority. Now imagine decades of closing ranks and protecting bad decisions and rogue employees and you begin to understand why minority communities distrust our criminal justice system.

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