As the first anniversary of the fatal Ferguson, Missouri police encounter approaches, we can expect activists and opportunists to return to the small town and take to their soapboxes to stage protests, disparage law officers, and call for additional limits on the police. Sadly, the anniversary of this watershed moment in policing finds a much degraded image of law enforcement in America, increasingly polarized views on crime and policing, and concerning increases in homicide in cities across the country. While clear-headed opportunities for positive change have been ever-present, conflict and negativity have ruled the discussion
Fueled by negative media reports and an Administration-led political agenda, it is now fashionable to vilify your local police, loudly and often, regardless of the facts. As the trend expands, we will inherit the obvious result - good men and women already doing difficult, often thankless, work opting out of the profession; young prospects taking other paths for their careers; rising crime rates as beleaguered cops retreat from proactive policing.
From Washington, D.C. to Washington State it’s already happening. In the nation's capital, the Metropolitan Police Department struggles to hire new officers while facing record attrition. They do so while murder and violent crime have jumped after recent record lows. In Washington State, there is a shortage of State Police to patrol the highways. State police in Vermont and Wisconsin have also expressed concerns over recruiting shortages. One recruiting officer in Madison says many potential candidates mention the lack of public support as a main factor for reconsidering police work. News reports cite research by the International Association of Chiefs of Police showing an 80 percent decline in police applications in southern towns.
One year later there is still misunderstanding surrounding the death of Michael Brown. Despite a Department of Justice investigation demonstrating that the Ferguson “Hands up, don’t shoot” theme was apocryphal, major news outlets trumpeted the phrase as fact. To this day, neither ABC nor NBC has clarified its coverage. Ongoing media hype around, “Hands up, don’t shoot” enabled the lie to become a rallying cry, a hollow mantra for anyone wishing to protest the police.
Sadly, the anniversary of this watershed moment in policing finds a much degraded image of law enforcement in America, increasingly polarized views on crime and policing, and concerning increases in homicide in cities across the country.
A recently leaked, draft DOJ report on the law enforcement response to the Ferguson protests apparently contains pages of stinging criticism of the St. Louis area police. The armchair quarterbacks reportedly criticize “unwarranted” use of tear gas and police dogs, describes a poorly informed and disorganized chain of command and a “Keep Moving” order that denied protesters their First Amendment rights. The 20/20 hindsight sees past or ignores the realities of crowd dynamics and the challenge of law enforcers to apply just the right force to just the right person while ensuring no one nearby is offended. Non-lethal tactics deployed in split seconds when protesting crowds suddenly turned violent resulted in few protester injuries. Perhaps the DOJ experts will also favor us with a review of the success of police restraint following the Baltimore rioting a few months ago. They can draw comparisons to the millions of dollars in property damage and scores of police injured.
Deeply troubling since Ferguson has been the response of the Administration. The White House sent representatives to the funerals of Michael Brown, a man who robbed a convenience store and then attacked a police officer, and Freddie Gray, a lifelong criminal. Sandwiched between was a lengthy report from the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing containing dozens of recommendations buried in a broad criticism of policing. Like most politically-driven reports, this one came with precious few dollars with which to implement hundreds of millions of dollars in recommended police improvements. But the main points were made - police are over-militarized, too quick to resort to force, deficient in building trust through community engagement.
One year later, we must ask, "Are we better off?" Are our police learning and improving from their mistakes, are their governments funding more training and better qualified candidates, are police utilizing de-escalation and crisis intervention techniques, are they building trust through improved community engagements?
What have our communities gained? Are citizens safer, are they feeling empowered to challenge every police direction and resist any police action, are citizens and governments moving to take unwanted or unhelpful laws off the books?
We’ve had a year of the police as political punching bags. While some of the criticisms and occasional prosecutions have certainly been warranted, troubling new trends have also emerged. One thing that can be counted on is that, regardless of the facts, the police will be blamed for them too.
Ron Hosko is president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, and former assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.