Just a Little More About Ferguson — Then I’ll Sit Down and Shut Up

The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson is tragic and, I think, should not have happened. I think that there were other peaceful ways to handle the situation. Even if Michael Brown was involved in the theft of a bunch of cigars from the convenience store, that is not a capital offense. I also do not condone or lend support to the rioters. They were not there for Michael.

I do support the protests as long as they are reasoned and rational and focus on the issue of law enforcement officers’ unwarranted use of deadly force. We don’t yet know the full story of what happened on that street in Ferguson. More information needs to come out and I think it will.

I don’t know what the reason is for the increased use of deadly force by police officers. I do not think it is all race based. Race is not always the triggering motivation; however, race can be an element in the mix that results in these incidents.

These shooting incidents have not suddenly appeared. They have been going on for some time. I was raised in and around Ferguson but now I live in Rio Rancho, a suburb of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Police in Albuquerque have shot and killed over 30 people in recent years…about 25 since 2010. Some of these persons were mentally ill and not totally responsible for their actions. Some were attempting or threatening suicide. Some were dangerous criminals and were a threat to police officers and the public. But, because of a veil of secrecy, not much information was shared by the police. The local police department managed to keep case details confidential through an interpretation of the state open records statutes. The Albuquerque residents have calmly accepted the status quo even though the families of the victims tried to pursue cases through the courts. Some families won settlements and even then things were kept pretty quiet.

Last spring, James Boyd, a homeless and mentally ill man holding a pocket knife was shot multiple times up in the Sandia foothills where he was illegally camping.  He did not confront the police; he was asleep when they converged on him with rifles and dogs. There was a lengthy and confused confrontation and he ended up dead. Video of the event has been all over the internet. This was not the last deadly force incident in Albuquerque….there have been several more since then. The James Boyd death incident did wake people up and brought them out to the street in protest….finally. Some of the protests went over the top and there was property damage and protestors briefly interrupted traffic on the interstate.  It was more of a running game of tag with the police than a riot. The US Department of Justice issued a report after a lengthy investigation going back several years that stated that the Albuquerque police displayed a pattern of excessive force. There were many examples given in the report — not all were deadly force incidents.

My concern is why is there passivity on the part of the public?  Isn’t anyone keeping track or listening to the families of the victims? Where are the cub reporters? Holding a pocket knife that can’t do any harm to a police officer unless they walk into it is not a capital offense. Stealing cigars isn’t either. I worked in criminal justice for twenty years in a correctional agency — both institutional and probation/parole. The police behaviors documented in the DOJ report on the Albuquerque police department would not have been tolerated in a modern prison system for six months let alone six or more years. The landslide of lawsuits would have almost buried the prison administrators and changes would have been made. Incarcerated inmates are not passive people. They will raise a protest and file lawsuits and gain the ear of federal judges if things go wrong. (That is not to say that every lawsuit is worthy of serious attention. Many are frivolous but they have to go through due process. Someone will read the case.)

What about police training? You can Google “criminal justice degree” and come up with every shape, size, length and variety of program.  From my time in criminal justice I know several former administrators who are teaching classes. Some have had good career experiences and some have not. They have a certain perspective because they only dealt with people who were judged to be guilty of a felony. Are they the best people to be teaching future law enforcement officers? I don’t know. Some are very good….but I don’t know.

So what about Michael Brown? It looks like what happened to Michael has happened to others before him. Trayvon Martin was not the same situation as Michael Brown but how many Michaels, James’s  and Trayvons are waiting in the wings? How many Zimmermans or other frightened and heavily armed citizens are out there? How many rattled and confrontational police officers? Is there a “shoot first, ask questions afterward” mentality that needs to be addressed?

And what about race? I don’t know what the statistics are but I would not be at all surprised if national statistics show that Blacks are being shot in these incidents at a high level. I think it is more complicated than that. How many homeless or mentally ill people are being shot? How many are just frightened kids running away? Is it a power and authority issue? Is there a militarization issue? It doesn’t look to me that race is a huge factor in Albuquerque. Rather it seems to be an inability or unwillingness to try to defuse situations and sometimes a confrontational attitude.

I have been saddened and in some ways educated by the Ferguson situation. On several different occasions involving different interviews I’ve heard it repeated that Black parents have to sit their young boys down and explain the correct passive posture and role they must take if stopped by a police officer. I’m White and grew up where the shooting and riots took place and my parents never had that talk or even thought that they had to.

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