Local policymakers, experts analyze turmoil in Ferguson

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By Derrick Perkins (File photo)

Even before tensions began finally easing in Ferguson, Mo., local officials and experts began drawing what lessons they could from the unrest that captured the national spotlight.

Ferguson became a household name in August after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old. Michael Brown’s death shocked and outraged the predominantly black community.

Protests — accompanied by rioting and looting — followed in the St. Louis suburb. In response, local law enforcement officers — many donning paramilitary garb and wielding military grade equipment — clamped down on the unrest.

As the disturbances subsided, elected officials, policymakers and political pundits across the country began debating the simmering issues the weeks of turmoil in Ferguson had exposed. Chief among them were race relations, civil rights, economic inequality, community policing and the militarization of local law enforcement agencies.

In Alexandria, City Councilor John Chapman was watching closely.

“One of the things that I’m seeing and sensing is a real lack of discussion between the police and the government and protestors,” Chapman said last month after noting he had several friends in the area during the unrest. “They are people without hope. They feel they don’t have any other way to communicate.”

Keeping open lines of communication between the public, policymakers and local authorities is key, and on that front, Chapman said Alexandria is doing well. He referenced the police-involved shooting of Taft Sellers in 2013.

Sellers died in a standoff with officers on Duke Street. Though armed, Sellers never fired a shot, according to authorities. But when he raised his weapon at the responding officers, they opened fire.

An investigation later determined they fired 37 shots in 10 seconds. Sellers took five bullets and collapsed.

Authorities cleared the officers involved, concluding that deadly force was justified as soon as Sellers, a former Marine, directed his handgun toward them. Even though many in the community were upset by the incident, there was no unrest, no violence, Chapman said.

“We’ve had our challenges recently — just look at [Sellers],” he said. “We didn’t have the marchers. We had a lot of communication and a lot of discussion.”

Making civic engagement a priority — and getting out in the community when trouble arises — is Chapman’s main takeaway from Ferguson.

“I need to make sure I am connecting with members of the community, getting to know them and their issues. … This is something I’ve talked to a number of people about,” he said. “If something happens here, I’m out speaking about it, talking about it. I’m not seeing that in Ferguson.”

The reaction of local law enforcement also has sparked debate, with national lawmakers weighing federal programs that funnel military equipment to local police agencies. While officials with the Alexandria Police Department declined to discuss the situation in Ferguson at all — “It would be inappropriate for us to comment on other agencies’ investigations because we are not privy to the details of the case,” said spokeswoman Crystal Nosal — University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett identified several immediate lessons for local law enforcement officials.

Like Chapman, Garrett stressed communication and transparency.

“The public knows that something happened; they know that something has gone wrong,” he said. “Whether the force turns out to have been justified or not, it’s never something the police are supposed to do. … Even if the police officer didn’t use excessive force, there may have been something they could have done to prevent it.”

In the event of a police-involved fatality, department officials must act transparently and share what they know — and later conclude — with the public, Garrett said.

The discontent in Ferguson exposed another, more underlying problem: a serious divide between the police force and residents, he said. Unless that disconnect is tackled head on, in Ferguson and elsewhere, we can expect to see unrest flare up again, Garrett argued.

He pointed to past incidents of rioting in Los Angeles and New York City as examples.

“If you have a minority community that feels like they’re being ignored or harassed, then a particular shooting can become a flashpoint,” Garrett said. “It is usually not just about one incident. It’s usually about a history of behavior.”

Community policing, an approach authorities in Alexandria have embraced, is one solution Garrett suggested. Another would be creating resident-led boards to oversee police activity and investigate complaints.

“It is a serious problem when the police shoot someone and it’s even more serious when there is a breakdown in trust with the community,” Garrett said.

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