Cops Shoot People Dead Every Day. Why Did Ferguson Become Such A Huge Deal?


WASHINGTON -- Last year, 16-year-old Kimani Gray died after New York Police Department officers shot him seven times. The police had accosted the Brooklyn teen because he was fumbling with his waistband as if he had a gun, which they said he then pointed at them.

Eyewitnesses said there was no gun, and subsequent protests erupted into mini riots. They were similar to what has happened in Ferguson, Missouri, in the days since unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. In Brooklyn, neighborhood leaders got involved and the situation eventually calmed.

"There's so much unrealistic talk about a post-racial America and this stuff is always bubbling underneath, and we try to walk around and pretend that it's not," said New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who represents the area. "At any given time, something could spark the fire." Gray's parents are suing the city in an ongoing case.

There are a few theories about why public outrage faded faster in Brooklyn than in Ferguson. One is that the NYPD insisted Gray was armed.

"In Ferguson, it seems pretty conclusive that this kid didn't have any kind of a weapon," Gray family attorney Kenneth Montgomery told HuffPost.

But the bigger reason might be that police were better prepared to handle the fracas.

"New York had just gotten over this Occupy Wall Street thing, where you had tons of white kids getting arrested, getting their arms twisted and roughed up, so I think they were more conscious of the situation," Montgomery said. "These guys out in Ferguson didn't anticipate they were going to get national attention."

According to FBI data, there have been roughly 400 "justifiable police homicides" each year since 2008, though that number isn't precise since the numbers exclude "unjustified" police killings and not all agencies report data. Such incidents have become more common as the ranks of police have grown. The Washington Post reported that "in 1991 there were 1.92 justified homicides for every 10,000 violent crimes. By 2001, it was 2.63. By 2011, it was 3.35."

No incident is directly analogous to Ferguson. But people who have lived through some of the more high-profile shootings did gain a perspective that helps them explain why things have gone so haywire in the past week and a half. They also are uniquely positioned to answer the question of how, if ever, Ferguson can get back to normal.

The short answer is: It will take awhile, if it happens at all.

Even a year after a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy shot Andy Lopez, 13, to death, the healing process is not yet complete, says Santa Rosa, California, Mayor Scott Bartley.

"We are still experiencing the after-effects," Bartley told HuffPost. "The shock is diminished in a year but there are still those angry and upset."

Lopez's death in October 2013 divided the city along socioeconomic lines. Police said they mistook the eighth-grader's BB gun for an assault rifle and saw him acting suspiciously. Community members said racial profiling came into play. Lopez was shot seven times.

Protests and vigils ensued across Santa Rosa. Bartley set up monthly meetings with law enforcement and task forces on how to improve policing. But one of the main lessons learned was that the best way to de-escalate tension was by removing potential provocations.

"We tried to keep our police as much [as possible] out of the public view," Bartley said, contrasting it with Ferguson. "We realized that the police doing aggressive response isn't solving the problem; it's escalating it."

In July 2012, Tom Tait, the mayor of Anaheim, California, learned that lesson. Following the shooting of Manuel Diaz, an unarmed 25-year-old gang member, police beefed up their presence. As the Orange County Register reported, officers were "dressed in black-padded body armor wielding batons and beanbag shotguns."

Demonstrators were incited, dumpsters were set on fire and store windows were shattered. When police shot and killed another man the next day, after he had shot at officers, tensions grew worse.

Looking back, Tait called it a mistake. "It was one day and it was corrected," he told HuffPost. "You don't want people to mistake the police with the military."

The city eventually moved in the opposite direction. Tait organized neighborhood listening sessions and established a public safety board to bring accountability to police activity (though activists complained it didn't go far enough). He also encouraged cops to go on foot patrols more regularly and started a "coffee with a cop" program.

"We understood we needed to build up trust," he said, before cautioning that the lessons he learned aren't necessarily applicable to Ferguson. "There is no real playbook for this."

That's not entirely true. In some major cities, controversial shootings happen with more regularity, giving police familiarity with how to handle the ensuing complications. Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles who took office the year after the major riots there, said he was surprised at how disorganized and overly militarized the Ferguson Police Department seems to be.

"What you have here is an amateur chief of police who knew nothing about handling the press talking to them way before they had all the facts, changing the facts as he went along," said Riordan. "In some ways I felt sorry for him but I also thought he was a total amateur."

Bill Johnson, director of the National Association of Police Organizations, an umbrella group for rank-and-file police groups around the country, said the sensational accusation that Ferguson police shot an unarmed black teen with his hands up was enough to spark the situation by itself.

"The initial accusation was so unusual and so horrible that it gathers a lot of attention," Johnson said, stressing he doesn't necessarily believe the accusation.

Police aren't the only ones for whom these shootings have become routine. Some communities may have grown accustomed to them as well. In 2007, an off-duty police officer fired eight rounds at DeOnte Rawlings in southeast Washington, D.C., killing the 14-year-old with a bullet to the back of his head. The D.C. police department claimed Rawlings had shot at the officer, but eyewitnesses disputed that and no evidence was found to support it.

Protests ensued, but public outrage faded without the looting and violence on display in Ferguson. Asked why, the lawyer for the Rawlings family reasoned that police shoot D.C. residents with such frequency that people are just used to it.

"Unfortunately, in the District, those undercurrents didn't boil up," attorney Greg Lattimer said. "It's part of our culture now."

The District settled the family's civil lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.

In the end, for the victims and the aggrieved, restoring trust hinges on more than just police reforms. There is a judicial component as well. In Sonoma, the scab was reopened for community activists when the cop who shot Lopez, Deputy Erick Gelhaus, wasn't charged, and again this past week when Gelhaus was put back on full patrol duty.

"I would say, be prepared for the long haul as you make your strategy. Look off to the future," said Mary Moore, leader of the Justice for Andy Lopez Coalition, when asked what advice she had for the people of Ferguson. "It is understandable and I'm sympathetic to why people are acting out, the looting and all that. But when push comes to shove, cooler heads need to prevail."

In other cases, judicial recourse has provided some closure. The shooting of Oscar Grant III by transit police in Oakland, California, in 2009 captivated the country in ways similar to Ferguson. Over time, the fervor died down, said John Burris, the civil rights attorney who represented Grant's family.

The community was upset when the officer responsible for the shooting was convicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter as opposed to murder. But a modicum of closure came when Bay Area Rapid Transit agreed to pay a $1.3 million settlement as part of a federal civil rights lawsuit.

"It all hinges on the prosecution," Burris said. "The protests will simmer down until something new happens. But things they need to have right now is some sense that there is going to be a prosecution ... when that happens it will stop. The protests will stop."

See updates on the situation in Ferguson below:

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