It Isn't Just Ferguson

Yet another young black man killed. Another grief-stricken family, another outraged community. We've seen this before, and we can be confident we'll see it again. What's going on?

I never heard of Ferguson, Missouri before, and only know what I see in the press and on TV. I don't know much about this particular killing, and whether the policeman's use of lethal force was justified.

I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and have for more than forty years. Pittsburgh and its suburbs have had our share of killings of young black men by police under ambiguous and contested circumstances. The same distrust between the police and the black community that we've seen in Ferguson is present here too.

To understand what's going on, a good place to start is with political power. In Pittsburgh, the primary of the Democratic Party is where leadership decisions are made. The powerful organizations in these primaries are the organizations that care most: the police union, the firemen's union and the teacher's union. One of the consequences of this power is the rich pension plans for public unions agreed to by previous supine mayors, which may yet bankrupt the city. But another is the lack of accountability of the police.

Part of the problem is structural. Why should anyone outside the police department have confidence in a secret investigations run by the Internal Affairs Division? The police and the prosecutors have to have close relationships because their jobs require it. But that impeaches the prosecutors as impartial agents of the public in monitoring the police. A few years ago, in frustration, the public, over the objection of the mayor and the police union, voted to have a Citizen's Police Review Board. The mayor and the police union then managed to hamstring the Review Board procedurally, so that it is basically irrelevant. The consequence is that there is no effective independent review of police actions.

One consequence of this is that the police who conscientiously do their jobs have no trusted independent source of validation. The public views with skepticism proclamations of innocence from the police. A second consequence is a gulf between the police and the parts of the community most in need of police protection. Many young black men die because they are killed by other young black men. And many innocent bystanders, very often black, are killed in the process. Only a police force trusted by the black community can be effective in reducing this violence.

It will require enlightened leadership, both by politicians and by the police, to change this situation. Truly and demonstrably independent review of police use of force is in the best interests both of the vast majority of the police who conscientiously do their jobs, and of the wider community, who need a police force they can trust.