The fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, threw a national spotlight on a community in distress, where law enforcement has a fractured relationship with its citizenry and many of Ferguson’s black residents see white officers not as public servants but as aggressors. Changing that perception will require a complete overhaul of the city’s embattled police force.
In the wake of the heated protests that followed the death of the unarmed 18-year-old, city leaders have proposed several efforts to help balance the scales of justice in Ferguson, but the changes will either take many years to implement or have little effect, say criminal justice experts. Logistical issues such as a lack of funding to hire additional officers, legal concerns with recruitment efforts, a $40 million lawsuit against the city that alleges civil rights violations over how police treated protesters, and a short supply of minority police force applicants could hinder attempts to create a law enforcement agency that better reflects the people it serves.
In a city where the population is two-thirds black, all but three of its 53 law enforcement officers are white. The changes pledged by officials include outfitting the police force with body cameras for improved transparency, establishing rapport with Ferguson residents and addressing the glaring racial disparity in the city’s police department. “Are these changes going to be a symbolic thing or is this going to be substantive?” Toya Like-Haislip, associate professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, told International Business Times. "It could just be a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound if it’s not followed up with” new policies and additional protocols, she added.
Officials have pushed the Ferguson Police Department to require its officers to wear cameras mounted to their lapels or vests. Proponents say this would help control police behavior and allow third-party observers to review altercations. Other police departments have already done this, and they say the benefits are clear: fewer complaints of police abuse and less time spent dealing with discrepancies in witness accounts.
The Ferguson police force has long had body cameras at its disposal but only recently said it is in the process of field-testing the equipment after officials, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., pressed them to move forward with the program.
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The cameras, however, only work if police actually use them. In Los Angeles, where the police department began using body cameras and installing dash cams in cop cars four years ago, officers have been known to keep the cameras turned off while on patrol, which was the case when officers shot and killed an unarmed and mentally disabled man earlier this month. Investigators found that the officers involved did not have their body cameras on, nor was there a camera mounted on the dashboard of their vehicle. There have even been reports of law enforcement intentionally turning their body cameras off during altercations, as was the case in New Orleans a few weeks ago.
The events in Ferguson have also raised questions about the racial makeup of police forces. Of 755 cities across the U.S. for which the Census Bureau had data on police officer demographics, three-quarters of them had higher percentages of white officers than the white resident population; 29 cities had five times the percentage of white officers as white residents.
Citizens of minority groups are more willing to converse with police officers on the beat who are also minorities, studies have shown. “If you don’t reflect the population that you’re policing, you can quickly become an occupying army,” Gregg Etter, a professor in the department of criminal justice at the University of Central Missouri who previously worked as a sheriff in Wichita, Kansas, for 30 years, told IBTimes.
However, hiring more black police officers is not going to be easy for Ferguson. Many African Americans grow up with a negative perception of law enforcement that carries over into adulthood, says Like-Haislip. “African American families by and large train their kids how to interact with police,” she emphasized. Parents of black teenagers, especially young males, often advise their teenagers not to drive with too many friends in their cars, or to always address an officer as “sir” or “ma’am,” said Like-Haislip.
Law enforcement agencies, therefore, are often hard pressed to find black applicants. Recruiters want to fill their ranks with officers of all backgrounds, experts say, but cultural biases put them at a disadvantage.
Then there's the issue of money. Police force salaries are fixed by the state or municipality in which they operate, which means there is no using competitive wages to incentivize people to join the force. “My competition wasn’t the Wichita Police Department across the street,” Etter says. “It was companies like Boeing and IBM. A minority recruit … with a college degree” is going to go to them, where salaries are generally much higher than in law enforcement.
Plus, recruiters cannot specifically seek out only minority applicants, as that would violate federal discrimination laws. Not to mention that getting rid of one police officer to make way for a new one is no easy feat. There is not a lot of turnover within police departments, and officers cannot be fired without cause because of strong law enforcement unions.
To further complicate the matter of diversifying the Ferguson police force, research has shown that black residents are just as suspicious of black police officers as they are of white officers. Officers of all colors are subjected to the same pressures and concerns as any police officer and, at the end of the day, a black officer is still an officer. The “nature of policing” does not change, Like-Haislip says.
What can change is the way police interact with the people on their beats. Some experts have argued that “community policing” – having conversations and building relationships with residents – can have a lasting impact on how citizens perceive law enforcement. The city of Jennings, just a mile from Ferguson, did just that a few years ago, and has seen its crime statistics and rapport with residents improve, the Washington Post reports.
“If you can open up communication, that is a huge step toward avoiding ill-will between the police department and community,” Michael Lyman, professor of criminal justice at Columbia College of Missouri, told IBTimes.
Even if Ferguson were to adopt Jennings’ community policing approach, the question of whether the city can mend years of mistrust and apprehension between its law enforcement and its residents will likely not be answered until much further down the road.
“We don’t hire a new cop every year,” Ferguson Mayor James Knowles has said. “Every time we do, we are rushing out there to find an African-American officer. It’s a problem that we’re committed to working with others to fix.”