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Published: Thursday, 8/21/2014

FEATURED EDITORIAL

Lessons from Ferguson

Secretive, lacking diversity, overly militarized — the local police department was a disaster in the making

The powder keg that Ferguson, Mo., has become is the product of a small-town police force of dubious competence responding to residents’ grievances with a display of military-style weaponry.T

The immediate cause of the escalating protests in the St. Louis suburb — last week’s fatal shooting of a unarmed black teenager by a white police officer — has been joined by other issues of national, not just local, resonance.

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Michael Brown, 18, was killed Aug. 9 by Officer Darren Wilson. Although they apparently first confronted each other in a police cruiser, the shooting occurred more than 10 yards away from the vehicle. Mr. Brown’s family says he had his hands in the air when he was shot.

Officer Wilson reportedly has told investigators that Mr. Brown lunged at him and that he fired in self-defense. Several autopsies have concluded independently that Mr. Brown was shot at least six times, confirming witness accounts.

Whether there was any justification for this use of deadly force will be determined by a federal investigation; Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., went to Ferguson on Wednesday to oversee the review. A county grand jury is conducting a separate inquiry.

That process must be allowed to take its course. Both investigations will have to balance thoroughness with promptness; both need to be as transparent as circumstances allow.

In the meantime, other conclusions can be fairly drawn. The Ferguson Police Department has made a bad situation much worse by its secrecy and potentially prejudicial release of information.

The department waited for nearly a week to identify Officer Wilson, leading to charges of a cover-up.

When it finally named the officer, it released at the same time video footage of a store robbery in which Mr. Brown allegedly took part; supporters claim other video evidence shows his innocence.

The Ferguson unrest also suggests what can happen when some residents regard the local police department as an occupying force. Although Ferguson’s population of about 21,000 is two-thirds African-American, barely 6 percent of its officers are black. The Toledo Police Department more closely reflects the city it serves: About 10 percent of its officers are black, compared with roughly 27 percent of city residents.

Dennis Kucinich, a former Ohio congressman and mayor of Cleveland, asserts that the unrest in Ferguson demonstrates “the militarization of local police” since the 9/​11 attacks. The Defense Department’s allocation of surplus military equipment such as armored vehicles to police departments, he says, can create “an escalation of violence.” Congress needs to review that practice.

The events in Ferguson, of course, do not justify the looting and violence that have accompanied the street protests. Such lawbreaking will not attract public sympathy for allegations of police misconduct.

Missouri officials have helped calm the situation somewhat; the presence of Capt. Ron Johnson, an African-American commander of the state police, has restored a degree of official credibility among residents. But the situation is still far from quiet.

Ferguson can learn a lot from other American communities, including Toledo, about responsible, effective policing that builds public trust and accountability. Other communities, including Toledo, can treat Ferguson as a cautionary tale. The price of that instruction, though, has been unacceptably high.


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