What do police officers think about how the police department in Ferguson, MO is handling the aftermath of the Brown shooting?   no comments

Answer by Tim Dees:

I think this is a classic example of what happens when a law enforcement agency isn’t trained or prepared for an unexpected or exceptionally large event.

Ferguson is a city of 21,000 people. It’s police department has 52 sworn officers. Only three are black, when about 68% of the city’s population are black. This imbalance affects the current situation tangentially, but I doubt that it’s a problem that the City of Ferguson is unaware of or that they haven’t tried to fix it. Anytime a white police officer kills or seriously injures a minority citizen in a predominately minority community, there will be an outcry. Accusations of racism follow immediately and certainly, and the precipitating conduct that led to the incident is lost in the conversation.

There is something of a litmus test one can do to evaluate whether the motive behind an action is motivated by racism: change the ethnicities of the players. So, instead of Michael Brown, we have Michael White, a 6-5, 265 lb. Caucasian, 18 years of age. He enters a convenience store in his small community and takes a package of cigars. When the clerk tries to stop him, White grabs him and tosses him around in order to leave unencumbered. A few minutes later, White and at least one companion of the same ethnicity are walking down the middle of a public street, eschewing the sidewalk provided for pedestrians.

A uniformed police officer (he can be whatever race you want him to be–I don’t think it matters) who is of inferior physical size to White sees him and asks him and his friend to move to the sidewalk. The pair refuse. The police officer may or may not know about the strongarm robbery at the convenience store; if he knows, he is unaware that White or his companion are the perpetrators. The officer stops his car and starts to get out to confront the pair. White attacks him as he tries to exit the vehicle, and attempts to disarm the officer. The officer retains control of his firearm and shoots White, who is unarmed. Would the white citizens–or, for that matter, the black, brown, or green citizens–demonstrate, hold rallies and vigils, and ultimately burn and loot the town in protest? I’m unaware of this ever happening.

Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown, is described as “tall and slender” in the stories I’ve read. He looks to be about six feet tall and around 180 lbs., although this is only a gross estimate based on a few photos of him I have seen on the web. I’m a fairly big guy. When I was working the street, I was 6-2 and around 210 lbs. Had I been attacked by an 18-year-old of Brown’s size who tried to get control of my sidearm, I would probably have shot him, or tried, too.

When you’re fighting with someone who outmatches you physically and has moved in too close for a TASER or impact weapon, you don’t have many options left if you want to go home that day. Race is irrelevant, at least from the perspective of the officer. I’ve heard the argument that walking down the middle of the street, or even doing a robbery of a store, doesn’t justify the use of deadly force. No, it doesn’t. But attacking a police officer and trying to disarm him does quite possibly justify the use of deadly force. The decision to do that was solely Michael Brown’s. Had he paid for his cigars and walked on the sidewalk (not especially arduous requirements, IMHO), he would likely still be going to technical school next month, and most of us would still have never heard of Ferguson.

The Ferguson PD now has to contend with civil unrest, the likes of which they have never seen before. If they are like most PDs of that size, they have little training in public order incidents. Still, they don’t have the option of boarding up the police station and hiding inside while people are gathering in a hostile way. They responded the only way they knew how, in tactical gear that offered the best protection for their officers. The basic police uniform doesn’t provide all that much protection from threats to the wearer. Most cops wear body armor that will stop a handgun bullet, but it doesn’t help if you get hit in the roughly 70% of the body that is not protected by the armor. It will offer some very limited protection against thrown missiles like rocks and bottles, but none against Molotov cocktails. If you get hit with a rock in your head, knee, or elbow, you’re likely going down.

Tactical gear often includes knee and elbow pads, more coverage with body armor, a helmet, and possibly goggles. If I had been going out to police a hostile crowd, I’d have every piece of gear like that I could carry. Some officers–most of the ones I saw were from the county police department–were armed with rifles. One photo I’ve seen run repeatedly shows a helmeted officer with a sniper rifle on a bipod, and the officer appears to be perched on top of a tactical vehicle. People may find this offensive, but there is sound tactical doctrine for this. If someone fires a gun from inside or around a crowd, they are very difficult to identify. Pursuit, if you know who to pursue,  is even more difficult, as the members of the crowd will likely be panicking and stampeding.

The sniper, with his high observation point, the protection of the tactical vehicle, a magnifying scope, and a rifle capable of placing a bullet far away with precision, can spot and eliminate such a shooter far more effectively than an officer on the ground can.

The tactical vehicles may also be off-putting, but they offer the occupants protection from bullets, thrown objects, and improvised fire bombs, all of which were a factor in this situation. If the tires are shot out or flattened by nails, they often have run-flat tires that will allow the vehicle to keep moving. A patrol car offers far less protection, and anti-police crowds seem to delight in setting fire to and overturning police cars that are vacant or abandoned. A 52-man police department isn’t going to have a lot of spare cars.

The PD stepped up their posture when there was arson and looting of city businesses the night after the shooting. Burning down and stealing from the businesses that serve your community does absolutely nothing to advance whatever cause of justice you’re allegedly seeking to achieve. The people who do this are thieves and hoodlums, plain and simple. They take advantage of overwhelmed law enforcement services to commit their crimes unimpeded. Some people seem to like to describe the actions of these criminals as a morally justified response to the racist genocide of their own by the ruling class. Bullshit. These are just cowardly criminals who are going to steal or destroy anything they can get their hands on because they like to steal and destroy things. If they could get away with it at any other time, they would do it, then, too.

When the Missouri governor ordered the Ferguson PD to stand down and turned over handling of the incident to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, critics of the FPD noted that the more relaxed approach was reducing the level of violence and confrontation in the wake of the more fascist tactics of the FPD. This lovefest lasted less than 24 hours, until the sun went down and the looting and arson resumed. There would have been a lot more of this, but by then many business owners were standing guard with personally-owned firearms. I don’t blame them a bit for doing this (in their situation, I would be doing the same thing), but do you think a looter or arsonist is going to get a better shake from a personally-invested businessman whose expertise is with selling hardware or cutting meat, or a trained police officer?

The arrests of journalists and people who were doing no more than recording what they saw on a public street were wrong, plain and simple. The cops should and probably do know better. I don’t excuse their behavior, but I do understand it in part. When you’re seeing the town you’re supposed to police coming down around you, you feel like you need to do something, even if the “something” is ill-advised. It’s a siege mentality brought about by stress and frustration. Better and more intensive supervision would have deterred this sort of behavior, but my guess is that FPD had every cop they could find deployed on the street, and there weren’t enough effective supervisors to keep track of them all. My friend, risk management expert and retired CHP captain Gordon Graham, likes to say that most police misconduct cases can be traced to ineffective supervision.

Once again, the FPD was overwhelmed. So, if this situation was so out of their depth, why didn’t the FPD just call for help from the start? Because tradition and standard practice say you try and handle what comes to you before you call for help. This got out of control faster than the FPD could recognize and react to it. They did have the assistance of the St. Louis County Police Department and some state troopers drawn from local stations, but wasn’t able to coordinate and control those bodies sufficiently to keep this situation from growing more serious. I don’t know if they had ever trained or planned for this kind of coordinated operation before. If they’re like most police agencies in the United States, they haven’t. There is a limited amount of time and money for training, and you tend to address the problems you already have, not the ones you might have someday.

Would this situation have taken place if the racial makeup of the FPD more closely reflected that of the community? Maybe, but that’s a difficult goal. Police departments around the country are having difficulty recruiting new officers of any race. Only about 20% of Americans ages 18-25 are eligible for military service. The rest are rejected for reasons of obesity or just poor physical conditioning, criminal records, driving history, recent drug use, or poor credit. Police service is more restrictive than the military, but someone who can’t qualify for the military isn’t likely to qualify to be a police officer, either. By age 30-34, 3.2% of white men have been in prison, where 22.4% of black men have (Race, Criminal Background, and Employment). In Missouri, 56% of black men graduate from high school, where 81% of white men do (National Table Data). 27% of white Americans have poor credit records, where 48% of blacks do (Study: African-Americans More Likely to Have Bad Credit | BadCredit.org). The reasons for this are an entirely separate debate, but it boils down to there being substantially fewer black men than white men who are qualified to be police officers. Of the black applicants who are qualified for police service, they usually have many better and more lucrative options. Many businesses and colleges actively recruit high-achieving minorities, enticing them with management training programs and full-ride scholarships. If I was a young man offered a choice of a professional career in engineering, medicine, or business or being a police officer, both with all training and education costs paid, it would be pretty tough to take the cop route.

Now and then, law enforcement agencies decide their need for minority officers or supervisors is so great that they lower the bar for minority applicants. This has had disastrous consequences in every instance of which I am aware. You need the best person you can get, not just the best [race or ethnicity] you can get, to be your cops and supervisors. To summarize: I think the Ferguson PD just got slammed with an event that was beyond their capacity to handle. The people of Ferguson could have responded to the shooting with peaceful protests and demonstrations, and I suspect most of them intended to do exactly that. But a relatively small number decided to respond with violence, and the FPD wasn’t trained or equipped to deal with it. What do police officers think about how the police department in Ferguson, MO is handling the aftermath of the Brown shooting?

Written by Tim Dees on August 17th, 2014