Professor Kami Chavis Simmons writes about fatal police shooting in Ferguson in Huffington Post blog

Photo of Wake Forest Law Professor Kami Chavis

Professor Kami Chavis

The fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, and the subsequent events in Ferguson, Missouri, once again highlights the tensions that continue to exist between police officers and the residents of poor urban communities. Brown’s fatal shooting comes only weeks after a police officer killed another unarmed man, Eric Garner, in New York City, by allegedly subjecting him to an illegal chokehold. While it is important to wait for the results of an investigation into the Brown shooting, many Ferguson residents lack faith in the local police department to conduct an impartial investigation into the circumstances surrounding Brown’s death.

Federal intervention needed

The circumstances in Ferguson exemplify the special circumstances that justify federal intervention into what would typically be a local criminal justice issues. The Ferguson police department has a history of disproportionately stopping racial minorities, and this undoubtedly fuels some of the animosity local residents have exhibited against police when discussing the recent events in Ferguson. According to a report issued by the Missouri State Attorney General’s office, while blacks make up67 percent of Ferguson’s residents, in 2013, they represented 86 percent of those stopped by officers. Although white residents comprise a third of town’s population, only 12 percent were stopped by police. Officer Darren Wilson’s fatal shooting of an unarmed teen exacerbated the already tense relationship between police and citizens in that community, and many citizens have come forth to discuss the ongoing problems residents have had with the police force.

Furthermore, many commentators have recently criticized the department’s lack of diversity. For example, black residents represent a majority of the town, yet the police force employs only three black police officers. A lack of diversity is a problem nationwide, and most police departments fail to reflect the cultural diversity of the communities they serve.

The police department’s handling of the aftermath of Brown’s death has also demonstrated the failures of the local police department and the need for the federal government to participate in an investigation. Early in the investigation of Brown’s death, the local police department has made several missteps that have called its integrity into question. Those actions include failing to quickly release the officer’s name; releasing video of Brown that was not connected to his shooting death; and failing to provide information about how many times he was shot or the location of his wounds. The heavy-handed approach that the Ferguson police initially took toward the peaceful protestors immediately following the shooting has prompted Missouri’s governor to turn over security to the State Highway Patrol.

The Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into Wilson’s fatal shooting of Brown, and the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has plans to visit Ferguson. The federal government’s presence will hopefully restore legitimacy to a police department that has completely lost the trust of the community it serves.

The federal government has already authorized an independent autopsy to determine the cause of death. This will also be important to determine whether Brown was fleeing or surrendering when Wilson fired upon him. The federal government’s investigation will help assure Brown’s family and the residents of Ferguson that a complete and thorough investigation will occur.

Concern regarding police response to protestors

The right to assemble peacefully, the freedom to protest government actions, and the freedom of the press to cover these events are essential to our democracy and are embedded into our constitution. It is important to identify the two distinct groups of protesters in Ferguson. The majority of protestors are rightfully frustrated by yet another shooting of an unarmed black teen and the questionable police investigation following his death. They are attempting to peacefully exercise their constitutional rights to express their condemnation of these events. There also seems to be a second, smaller group whose own tactics are a distraction from the serious issues that precipitated the events in the first place. Many leaders, including several members of Congress and Missouri’s governor have criticized the initial local police response calling it “imbalanced” or “”aggressive,” and it is these tactics that have further angered residents reeling from Brown’s death. As vigils and protests occur nationwide in response to the events in Ferguson, peaceful protests must be allowed to continue. At the same time, residents and businesses must be protected from any group of people who are unwilling to properly honor Brown’s memory and his family members, who are still grieving their loss.

Lessons from Ferguson

The events in Ferguson remind us that it important to address allegations of police brutality and to assess the underlying causes of the subsequent violence that continues to occur in that community. The tensions in Ferguson that have sparked the protests and the ensuing violence are not unique to that city. The major instances of civil unrest in this nation are all linked to allegations of police brutality against unarmed black men. In 1965, the arrest of Marquette Frye sparked the Watts rebellion in 1965. In 1992, violence erupted in Los Angeles in 1992 following the acquittal of officers who were videotaped viciously beating Rodney King. In 2001, Cincinnati experienced several days of unrest followed the shooting death of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, who was the fifteenth African American man shot in that city between 1995 and 2001. In Oakland, protests erupted in 2010 when a Bay Area Transit officer shot and killed Oscar Grant on the subway platform. Given this history, community leaders and elected officials must pay attention to the aggressive law enforcement tactics used in urban communities. After the unrest in Watts, President Johnson established the Kerner Commission to study the causes of violence. Since the findings of the Kerner Commission, there have been many improvements in policing. Many major police departments have successfully implemented community-policing programs and have discarded aggressive police tactics, such as those initially used against peaceful protestors in Ferguson, to alleviate these tensions. However, many of the problems identified by that Commission’s report in 1968, such as economic inequality and the need for more diverse police departments that were sensitive to community needs, continue to persist in 2014 and can no longer be ignored.

This is a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, and every police chief in America should be asking: “How do I ensure that I maintain the integrity of my department and earn the trust and legitimacy of my community so that we don’t have another Ferguson?”

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Read the original post on Huffington Post blog.


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