Drawing Police Lessons From Ferguson May Not Be Clear-Cut

Nov 28, 2014
Originally published on November 28, 2014 7:16 am
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Thanksgiving Day was relatively quiet again in Ferguson, Missouri. There were just a few protests and a scattering of incidents. Many demonstrators hope that the death of Michael Brown, the young, unarmed black man shot by white police officer Darren Wilson, will be a turning point in race relations and policing. NPR's Martin Kaste has been talking to police trainers and other experts, looking for signs that police forces are acting on lessons learned from Ferguson.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: It's been a bleak year for police. Besides Ferguson, there was the death of Eric Gardner, tackled by officers in New York. And in Ohio, police stormed a Wal-Mart and shot a black man who was chatting on a phone while holding a BB gun. When The International Association of Chiefs of Police held their annual meeting in October, they sounded worried.

MICHAEL NILA: Police chief after police chief in these working meetings were repeatedly talking about the fact that we're at a crossroads.

KASTE: Michael Nila is a former officer and founder of Blue Courage. It's a reform-minded training program that teaches police to think of themselves as the community's guardians. He says there's huge demand for his services right now.

NILA: There are a lot of dynamics that are different about this time that were in the spotlight. And it's causing police executives to think about what we have to do differently.

KASTE: A lot of reformers are saying things like this. Russ Hicks is an officer with 23 years on the job who now teaches at Washington State's police academy.

RUSS HICKS: Now's the time to really look at our culture and to become better, to look at how we're connecting with the community. Our profession needs an upgrade.

KASTE: But what lessons, exactly, should police take from Ferguson? Reformers tend to agree that the police were too provocative and confrontational with protesters back in August. But what about the actions of Officer Darren Wilson? Is there a lesson to be learned from his shooting of Michael Brown? Here, the reformers hesitate.

PETER MOSKOS: I think it's counterproductive for society to focus on individual incidents.

KASTE: Peter Moskos is an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. And he's also a former policeman.

MOSKOS: Partly because I think we're picking the wrong examples to use and partially because they are just individual incidents. I mean, there will always be some bad police shootings.

KASTE: Moskos says if he were to nominate a case study of a bad police shooting, he wouldn't pick Michael Brown. He's pick Levar Jones. He was the man shot at a gas station by a South Carolina state trooper in September...


SEAN GROUBERT: (Yelling) Get out of the car. Get out of the car.


KASTE: Shot and wounded while complying with the trooper's commands.


LEVAR JONES: Why did you shoot me?

GROUBERT: Well, you dove head-first back into your car.

JONES: I'm sorry...

KASTE: The problem with drawing lessons from the shooting of Michael Brown is that it's not this clear-cut. Protesters say Officer Wilson was in the wrong. But police tend to think he was in the right. The slogan, I am Darren Wilson, has become an expression of police solidarity. Earlier this week, the chief in Portland, Oregon had to tell several of his officers to take the slogan off their Facebook pages.

NILA: It is very, very dangerous to pick a fight with the police.

KASTE: That's Michael Nila again, of the training company Blue Courage. He says when you're trying to change a police force, you don't want to alienate the officers. And that's the danger here, especially if officers think the post-Ferguson message is that they're no longer trusted, and they're no longer allowed to defend themselves.

NILA: If you're a line-level cop who's working the street, you feel like you're under attack. You feel like you're under attack. You feel like you're under a microscope. You very likely feel like there is a no-win situation. So what happens with street-level cops in these type of environments is they sit back, and they do the minimum.

KASTE: Tackling a police department's internal culture is such a delicate task that some reformers say it may prove easier for departments to just go with fixes that are bureaucratic and technological, more paperwork and body cameras. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.