Policing After Ferguson

Can we stop the brutality?

Jessica Stites September 22, 2014

On August 19, in Ferguson, Missouri, a demonstrator is arrested while protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In the fury over the police killing of an unarmed teenag­er in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, it feels as though White Amer­i­ca is wak­ing up to what Black Amer­i­ca has long known: Polic­ing looks dif­fer­ent in com­mu­ni­ties of color.

'I don’t know of any movement going on right now against police brutality that has demilitarization as its priority. We are struggling for community control.'

Here are the facts. Study after study has shown that low-income areas home to peo­ple of col­or are the most heav­i­ly policed. Blacks, despite being far less like­ly than whites to be found car­ry­ing weapons or drugs, are far more like­ly to be stopped and frisked by police, to have their vehi­cles searched, to be tased, to be shot, to be killed. As Jazmine Hugh­es explains on Gawk­er, black par­ents rou­tine­ly have the talk” with their sons on how to beat these odds: Don’t wear a hood­ie. Don’t try to break up a fight. Don’t talk back to cops. Don’t ask for help. … They’re all vari­a­tions of a sin­gle theme: Don’t give them an excuse to kill you.”

Now, out­rage over Fer­gu­son has sparked a flur­ry of pro­pos­als to curb police vio­lence and racism: body cam­eras, anti-racism train­ing, account­abil­i­ty boards. Demil­i­ta­riza­tion, too, has been a ral­ly­ing cry, after footage cir­cu­lat­ed of Fer­gu­son offi­cers using gov­ern­ment-sup­plied tanks and tear gas to sup­press protesters.

Yet police reform is noto­ri­ous­ly eas­i­er said than done. In 2007, the city of Chica­go set up a civil­ian body, the Inde­pen­dent Police Review Author­i­ty (IPRA), to inves­ti­gate police mis­con­duct after cries that the exist­ing Police Board was cor­rupt and inef­fec­tive. Accord­ing to an analy­sis by the non­prof­it Chica­go Jus­tice Project, the rate of cas­es referred for dis­ci­pline increased by only 0.28 percent.

So what can gov­ern­ments do to appease pro­test­ers? In These Times asked Frank Chap­man, a field orga­niz­er for the Chica­go-based Nation­al Alliance Against Racist and Polit­i­cal Repres­sion, Fred­er­ick Collins, a police offi­cer in Chicago’s near West Dis­trict and 2015 may­oral can­di­date, and Kris­t­ian Williams, the author of Our Ene­mies in Blue: Police and Pow­er in America.

What do you think the impact will be of the Michael Brown protests? How hope­ful are you that Fer­gu­son can open a space for real change?

Fred­er­ick: I’m very hope­ful. As a 21-year vet­er­an of the Chica­go Police Depart­ment, I am nei­ther naïve nor blind to the changes we need to make with­in the depart­ment and law enforce­ment agen­cies around this coun­try. To see youth mobi­lize so quick­ly around Fer­gu­son via social media gives me hope. What made the civ­il rights move­ment begin to have an effect was youth, and gain­ing that media coverage.

Frank: The media is not an engi­neer of social change in our coun­try. The civ­il rights move­ment spent many, many years fight­ing uphill. There were the boy­cotts, like in Mont­gomery, Alaba­ma, that did not get over­whelm­ing nation­al sup­port. Then the explo­sion took place, and the media act­ed like this was some­thing new. Fer­gu­son isn’t unique. Black cit­i­zens have been strug­gling against police bru­tal­i­ty for a long time. Fer­gu­son was a big spark to ignite a big­ger move­ment. It gives us an oppor­tu­ni­ty to see in a micro­cosm what is going on in the whole entire country.

What demands should activists make?

Frank: In Chica­go, we are fight­ing for an elect­ed Civil­ian Police Account­abil­i­ty Coun­cil. [Edi­tors’ note: The exist­ing IPRA has an appoint­ed head and a hired staff.] The coun­cil would appoint the Super­in­ten­dent of Police, rewrite the police rule book — includ­ing all use of dead­ly force guide­lines and stan­dard oper­at­ing pro­ce­dures, inves­ti­gate and pros­e­cute police crimes, and have the final word regard­ing dis­ci­pline in the Chica­go Police Department. 

Fred­er­ick: A civil­ian review pan­el is only part of the puz­zle. You have to have diver­si­ty with­in the rank-and-file that reflects the com­mu­ni­ties the depart­ment serves. You also need blacks and Lati­nos in posi­tions of pow­er. In Chica­go, we’ve got some real­ly good offi­cers work­ing, but we only have speck­les of African Amer­i­cans in pow­er in the police department.

Kris­t­ian: There may be sec­ondary ben­e­fits to police depart­ments becom­ing more diverse — help­ing nor­mal­ize the idea that peo­ple of col­or hold posi­tions of author­i­ty, for exam­ple — but I don’t think that they actu­al­ly lim­it police racism and vio­lence in the way that is sug­gest­ed. The police force in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., is major­i­ty black in a major­i­ty black city. The cops in D.C. behave the same as cops every­where else. Police vio­lence and police racism aren’t just a mat­ter of indi­vid­ual prej­u­dice. Racism is insti­tu­tion­al. It’s how polic­ing evolved. It’s how it’s prac­ticed in the day to day.

Frank: But you know white cops are racist. It comes out of their mouth when they approach us on the street. It’s part of their cul­ture. The com­po­si­tion of the depart­ment tells you how lit­tle say com­mu­ni­ties have in how the police police them.

What about oth­er reforms, like man­dat­ing police body cameras?

Fred­er­ick: I’ve talked about mak­ing sure the squad car cam­eras work in every car, and that police in riot gear have the small video cam­eras attached to their hel­mets. You see them in oth­er cities, you don’t see them in Chicago.

Do you think demil­i­ta­riza­tion is important?

Frank: I don’t know of any move­ment going on right now against police bru­tal­i­ty that has demil­i­ta­riza­tion as its pri­or­i­ty. We are strug­gling for com­mu­ni­ty control.

Fred­er­ick: When we talk about mil­i­ta­riza­tion, what we have to keep in mind is that it’s like being between a rock and a hard place. I have respond­ed to calls where my 9mm was no match for the crim­i­nal ele­ment who had an AK47 and a bul­let­proof armor vest. But I am not for using armored tanks and mil­i­tary tac­tics against Amer­i­can cit­i­zens who are con­ven­ing to voice dissent.

Kris­t­ian: It’s telling that Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and Attor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er are sud­den­ly con­cerned about the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the police when pre­vi­ous­ly they were active­ly engaged in mil­i­ta­riz­ing the police. We have an open­ing here to push for revers­ing that process — reduc­ing the police weapon­ry, reduc­ing the mil­i­tary hard­ware. But reform mea­sures have a ten­den­cy to re-legit­imize the insti­tu­tion. They can make the police seem like they have repaired them­selves; that the prob­lem is not real­ly with the insti­tu­tion but instead with the gear and the equipment.

So do you think any reform mea­sures can be worthwhile?

Kris­t­ian: Reforms that open up space for active resis­tance against racism and pover­ty, and that put a check on the worst police abus­es, should be pur­sued. But there’s not a review board in the world that’s going to change fun­da­men­tal inequal­i­ty. That requires a social move­ment and a more ambi­tious agen­da. At the end of that, what we’ll see is not bet­ter police, but some­thing to take their place, to guar­an­tee pub­lic safe­ty and resolve dis­putes with­out ubiq­ui­tous sur­veil­lance and violence.

What would that some­thing look like?

Kris­t­ian: It’s hard to gen­er­al­ize. In Our Ene­mies in Blue, rather than come­up with my utopi­an fan­ta­sy, I look at sit­u­a­tions where the police have been so dis­cred­it­ed and the social move­ment so pow­er­ful that peo­ple stopped look­ing to the cops for pub­lic safe­ty, and start­ed look­ing to social move­ments. A restora­tive jus­tice project in North­ern Ire­land and street com­mit­tees” in South Africa share cer­tain fea­tures: They are both very par­tic­i­pa­to­ry, local­ized and empha­size a restora­tive, repar­a­tive approach to jus­tice rather than ret­ri­bu­tion or pun­ish­ment. But they are also very dif­fer­ent and were so tai­lored to their unique sit­u­a­tions that it’s hard to know how they would trans­fer to the Unit­ed States. In prac­ti­cal terms, solu­tions are going to have to arise from com­mu­ni­ties. A good start is ask­ing peo­ple what it is they are look­ing for in pub­lic safe­ty. Some of those things the exist­ing crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem gives us. Some, it doesn’t.

Frank: A Civil­ian Police Account­abil­i­ty Coun­cil would be a step for­ward. The strug­gle for reform has to take place before the strug­gle for rev­o­lu­tion. Peo­ple don’t just say, Let’s dump the sys­tem.” First, they got to fight for things with­in the sys­tem that they believe they’re enti­tled to. And only when they come to the under­stand­ing that they absolute­ly can­not get them will they take more dras­tic measures.
Peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ties affect­ed by police crimes, by bru­tal­i­ty, by racial pro­fil­ing, know what they want. They want jus­tice. The moth­ers we work with, they want their sons out of jail, sons who’ve been framed up by police for crimes they did not com­mit and sub­ject­ed to tor­ture. African Amer­i­cans want some say over the use of guns in their com­mu­ni­ties. Not just in terms of the gang bangers, but also the police. The strug­gle to deter­mine how police poli­cies are made — that’s a strug­gle for polit­i­cal power.

Jes­si­ca Stites is Exec­u­tive Edi­tor of In These Times, where she runs the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing and edits sto­ries on labor, neolib­er­al­ism, Wall Street, immi­gra­tion, mass incar­cer­a­tion and racial jus­tice, among oth­er top­ics. Before join­ing ITT, she worked at Ms. mag­a­zine and George Lakof­f’s Rock­ridge Insti­tute. Her writ­ing has been pub­lished in the Los Ange­les Review of Books, Ms., Bitch, Jezebel, The Advo­cate and Alter­Net. She is board sec­re­tary of the Chica­go Read­er and a for­mer Chica­go Sun-Times board member.

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