Ferguson: ‘They were never here to protect us’

Police reform at standstill as Americans mark the one year anniversary of the killing that sparked Ferguson protests.

US race relations
Protesters gathered in New York to stand against police brutality and commemorate the deaths of innocents [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]

New York, United States – The protests have shrunk, but activists are still fuming.  

At a recent rally against racial bias and brutality in the US’ police forces, demonstrators illuminated a square in downtown New York with candles and traded stories about being stopped, frisked and hassled by cops because they are black.

One year since Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, was shot and killed by a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri – and despite some of the largest anti-racism protests to jolt the United States in years – many feel that their voices are still not being heard. 

“We won’t stop talking about this until people understand that we have rights,” Elsa Waithe, 27, a decorator and comic from Brooklyn, told Al Jazeera.


“There’s police out here who knowingly violate your rights because they think you’re a person of colour and your life doesn’t matter,” Waithe said.

Video evidence

Waithe held a banner with the names of people who had been killed by police in July.

It included Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman who was pulled over in Texas for failing to signal a lane change. She was found dead in her cell three days later in an apparent suicide.

The release of the video of Bland’s arrest, filmed by the police car’s dashboard camera, caused further outrage. The white state trooper Brian Encinia’s heavy-handed manner, critics say, fits into a pattern of lawmen abusing ethnic minorities in the US, with its painful legacy of slavery and oppression.

Other videos, captured on mobile phone cameras, became internet sensations. They include Eric Garner’s death in a police chokehold, a cop pinning a black teen to the ground at a Texas pool party and Walter Scott, 50, being fatally shot as he ran away from an officer in South Carolina.

“The disenfranchised black community has complained about this for a long time. Only now we all have cameras in our pockets and can upload these images,” added Waithe.

“It’s just a shame it takes video evidence for people to understand what’s been going on daily in people’s lives,” said Waithe. 

According to protesters, a worrying trend has followed Brown’s death on August 9 last year: An officer uses undue, even deadly, force against a black civilian; a video of the incident goes viral; protesters chant about racism and reform; beyond indignation, little changes; repeat.

A survey released this month by Pew Research Center, a polling group, found that 86 percent of blacks and 53 percent of whites said that more needs to be done to achieve racial equality in the US – a higher proportion than in 2014 for both groups.

RELATED: Fault Lines – Ferguson: Race and justice in the US  

In a Gallup survey last month, 18 percent of blacks said there had been an incident in the previous 30 days when they were treated unfairly by police. That figure has remained mostly level since 1997, when pollsters started recording it.

Falling short

In Ferguson, where Brown’s death sparked riots, protests, and soul-searching about bigotry in the US six years after it elected Barack Obama as its first black president, the mostly white, 45-officer force remains mired in controversy.

A grand jury declined to charge Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death in November, sparking a fresh wave of protests. In March, the US Justice Department accused the local force of widespread racial bias in its policing. Resignations followed.

Last month, Andre Anderson, a 50-year-old black police commander, was named as Ferguson’s new interim chief on a promise to “reshape our direction” and restore faith in a force that had allegedly used motoring fines as an extra tax on blacks.

Nationally, Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued 63 calls for reform, such as better training, easing tensions between cops and non-white communities and a much-debated call for independent, outside probes when lawmen use deadly force. 

That call was rejected by police unions and an umbrella body, the National Association of Police Organizations.

Obama’s researchers also noted the lack of data over police killings. It is estimated that blacks are shot by police at 2.8 times the rate of white non-Latinos, but the total number of deaths is unknown because forces do not always share data.

To plug the data-gap, The Washington Post newspaper has started keeping track for 2015.

RELATED: The Listening Post – Ferguson: Riots, race and the media

Last month, Obama called for shorter jail terms for drugs and parole violations to reduce the US’ vast 2.2 million prison population, complaining that blacks and Latinos are locked up far more often than whites.

He may lack cross-party support for sweeping changes.

For Cornell William Brooks, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), sporadic reform efforts by some police forces this past year fall short of the nationwide rewrite of policing rules that is needed. 

When you're given a hammer, you treat everything as a nail.

by Susan Shah, Vera Institute of Justice

“We have seen police departments embrace body cameras to some degree. What we have not seen are the deeper more systemic kinds of reforms necessary. Number one: Making clear what an excessive use of force is nationally,” Brooks told Al Jazeera.

According to former police chief John DeCarlo, reform is stymied by the multiple unions and other bodies that stitch together thousands of police forces across the country – many of which are remote units of fewer than 10 officers.

Carrots and sticks

“There are many gems in the president’s task force document,” DeCarlo, a scholar at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Al Jazeera.

“But without a centralised way to make these changes, how do we get 18,500 police departments to adhere to each excellent suggestion?” asked DeCarlo. 

“How do we fund it? How do we change the culture?”

Michael Jenkins, a policing scholar at Scranton University, also blames the patchwork of police forces, unions, governing and accreditation bodies that are far less consolidated than those in many European nations.

“We don’t have that, we have the Department of Justice and it has carrots and sticks to offer police departments for instituting certain changes, but oftentimes, the carrots aren’t that sweet and the sticks aren’t that strong,” he told Al Jazeera.

Against this backdrop, scholars have proposed radical shake-ups to policing. Forrest Stuart, a Chicago University sociologist, said officers could be made to live among the communities they serve rather than flee to mostly white suburbs when they clock off. 

Householders should vote on their satisfaction levels with police; commanders’ budgets would reflect their overall rating.

“We’ve come up with this tongue-in-cheek term, that we should Yelp the police,” Stuart told Al Jazeera, referring to a popular website for ranking local services.

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For Susan Shah, an expert on policing at the Vera Institute of Justice think-tank, police training courses remain dominated by target practice and defensive tactics that yield trigger-happy officers who are prone to escalating confrontations.

“When you’re given a hammer, you treat everything as a nail,” she told Al Jazeera. 

“Officers often get into the job because they want to help people. But so much of their training is on firearms and defensive tactics; and, in the job, their performance is mostly measured by the number of arrests they make,” Shah explained.

“The president’s task force noted that we need a shift from a ‘warrior mind-set’ to a ‘guardian mind-set’ – but that kind of change takes time and resources,” said Shah. 

Back at the protest in lower Manhattan, 22-year-old Prince Akeem has little faith that lofty talk about training and possible legal changes will reform a system that he says is designed to intimidate people based on the colour of their skin.

“I’ve been stopped my whole life and police slapped me on my head like I thought it was cool; and now I know that it was not cool,” he told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think it’s ever gonna change, even if laws get passed,” Akeem said. 

“There will always be a few officers that do the same things as before the law was passed. They were never here to protect us.”

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

Source: Al Jazeera