Five years ago Michael Brown was tragically killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Miss. Brown’s death not only rocked the city of Ferguson but sparked civil unrest across the nation. I interviewed 100 protesters and residents of Ferguson two months following Brown’s death. Protesters demonstrated for months because they believed that Brown was a victim of injustice and his death was not an isolated event, felt a moral and ethical responsibility to get involved, and desired to put an end to police brutality and dismantle institutional racism.
What has changed in Ferguson since the death of Michael Brown? Four years after Brown’s highly publicized fatal encounter, I went back to Ferguson and spoke with residents who frequented establishments in the area to see what they thought.
Residents pointed to a handful of efforts that have been made to bring change, including the installment of a black police chief, an increasing number of minorities on the police force, three black people sitting on the seven-member city council, and the ousting of the seven-term county prosecutor Bob McCullough in Missouri’s primary election.
Additionally, in March 2016, the city of Ferguson entered into a federal consent decree agreement with the Department of Justice to stop a pattern of unconstitutional racial discrimination against the city’s predominantly black population. Since the consent decree was ordered, the court has a new prosecutor and a new judge who are independent of each other and the city; these city officials are under the authority of the city manager.
Moreover, the city dismissed thousands of municipal court cases, forgave over $1 million in fines, and enrolled more than one thousand in community service projects rather than requiring them to pay a fine. And a new $80 million development is set to come to Ferguson to include a health-care center, a Regions Bank, an Electro Savings Credit Union and Fields Foods.
Despite the positive changes that have taken place, much more needs to be done. The reality is that insufficient attention has been paid to the poisonous legacy of racism that infects not only Ferguson but communities nationwide, and is visible in America’s criminal justice system. Long overdue, some have realized the need to address America’s history of racial injustice within the criminal justice system.
The National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice seeks to improve relationships and increase trust between communities and the criminal justice system. Along with enhancing procedural justice and reducing the impact of racial bias, effort is taken to foster reconciliation to build trust between police departments and minority communities.
This reconciliation process entails frank engagements between minority communities and law enforcement to address historical tensions, grievances and misconceptions that contribute to mutual mistrust and misunderstanding that prevent police and communities from working together.
The process of racial reconciliation addresses these deeply troubled relationships through engagement between law enforcement and community members about the long American history of legal abuse of minorities; the fact that traditional law enforcement has sometimes been both ineffective and caused unintentional damage to individuals, families, and communities.
The process reveals real common ground, shows police that communities reject violence and want to work with them in new ways, and facilitates communities in expressing strong and meaningful norms against violence and for good behavior. More of this is needed to improve relationships and build trust between law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
In addition, many have called for police reform, which entails more police technology, surveillance equipment, manpower, and increased training in diversity, implicit bias, and de-escalation. While there is certainly a need for new training regimes, the elimination of militarized tactics on civilians, greater oversight of the police, and enhanced accountability, we are mistaken if we think these are adequate solutions to reducing abusive policing and subordination of black people. Millions have been pumped into police departments in the past four decades, which has only led to greater surveillance of black and brown people.
Rather than simply investing more dollars into police departments, investments need to be made in individuals and communities. Structural disadvantage, pervasive inequality, joblessness, poverty and inadequate public services are common characteristics of poor inner-city communities. These cities are also violent.
Funds should be used on prevention and intervention initiatives for at-risk youths and young adults. Dollars need to be spent on addressing mental health, substance abuse and homelessness. Resources should be used to bring more jobs into poor communities, offer living wages, and provide quality education. Ending the killing of black people requires doubling down on investments in communities — not the police or the criminal justice system.
Jennifer Cobbina, associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University and author of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: Why the Protests in Ferguson and Baltimore Matter, and How They Changed America.”
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