Police Accountability After Ferguson

Improving policing in departments with entrenched cultures has proven a challenging endeavor. Departmental culture plays a defining role in how police officers conduct their work, and it flows from the top, or, as they say, rots from the head.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

When I awoke to news of the National Guard coming to Ferguson Monday morning, I felt like I had been transported back to Newark, New Jersey. Not the Newark I left a few months ago to return to St. Louis, but the Newark of the summer of '67, when violence erupted, tanks rolled in and any remaining tendrils of trust between police and citizens burned with the city.

Over the 13 years I spent in Newark as Executive Director for the ACLU of New Jersey, I worked to repair the culture of police misconduct that lingered in Newark since that devastating summer. Each year, the ACLU office received countless requests for help with policing issues, many from parents seeking to address harassment and abuse on behalf of their children. A typical story is that of Tony Jetter-Ivey who police stopped, harassed and roughed up (along with his Pop Warner football coach and another player) without cause, leaving all three in fear for their lives and permanently eroding 13-year-old Tony's trust in police.

Such interactions remain the most direct and dangerous confrontations that citizens have with their government. African Americans and other communities of color are disproportionately targets. Given this reality, it's hard to understand why we have not enforced strong standards and practices nationwide to put an end to all-too-frequent tragedies like the killing of Michael Brown, and all abuse of power. Following Newark's uprisings, its citizens endured more than four decades of difficulties with the police. Today, in Ferguson and the rest of the country, we cannot abide by such a timeline. We need police accountability now.

But what does real police accountability look like? No single approach fits or fixes all. Instead, it requires three-prongs: internal controls (such as in-service training, use of dashboard and body cameras, and strong and credible internal affairs offices), progressive police leadership, and independent, external oversight. Together these can lead to sustainable reform.

But even with all stars aligned, improving policing in departments with entrenched cultures has proven a challenging endeavor. Departmental culture plays a defining role in how police officers conduct their work, and it flows from the top, or, as they say, rots from the head. Thus, we can only make progress on accountability with the right police leaders. In addition to recruiting qualified officers who reflect the communities they serve, cities must select chiefs with the kinds of qualities that will enhance the integrity and professionalism of the department. We need police professionals who, despite the natural discomfort of subjecting one's work to outsider review, embrace best practices and understand the role of oversight. In Ferguson we have seen indicators of such leadership from Captain Ron Johnson, who walked side-by-side with protesters, listened to people's concerns and spoke authentically about his own feelings on the matter.

I worked with two very different police directors in Newark. The first, brought in from NYPD, came to the table and made commitments, but did not take accountability seriously enough to follow through with any meaningful reforms (much to the expressed frustration of engaged citizens). To my surprise, the second, who rose through the ranks in Newark and had a reputation, neither dismissed nor acted defensively in response to our concerns. We often disagreed, but where we found common ground, he made improvements and in doing so strengthened police relationships with the community (and may have even avoided costly litigation). Even the simple step of providing clear policy guidance and training to officers that affirmed citizens' rights to videotape police in public went a long way toward deflecting hostilities between police and citizens, not to mention helping prevent false arrests and mistreatment, like that experienced by Newark high school student Khaliah Fitchette (now at Cornell University) who police took into custody when she used her phone to record officers responding to a problem on a city bus.

The most critical prong of sustainable reform is an independent and empowered external oversight body. These offices can take different forms. Some police departments become the subject of external monitoring as a result of a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation. A number of cities including New York and San Diego have citizen review boards, though many lack sufficient resources, authority and access to information to succeed. Some jurisdictions, like Orange County, California and Denver, have permanent independent monitors. Departments with consistent, ongoing monitoring have the best hope to sustain reforms and maintain accountability.

Engaging with the DOJ is often necessary to force police departments to abide by their own internal controls. In Newark, the ACLU ultimately petitioned the Department of Justice to investigate police misconduct. Newark did not have a high-profile shooting like in Ferguson to bring attention to its problems, but we used the scant public records available to document 418 incidents of police misconduct over two and a half years, including nine wrongful deaths or deaths in custody. Last month, more than four years after the ACLU's petition, the DOJ completed its investigation and announced long-term monitoring for Newark.

Meanwhile, in Ferguson, numerous groups have already called for a DOJ investigation of Michael Brown's death, as well as the overall climate of discriminatory policing in St. Louis' North County. While the death of Michael Brown ignited this uprising, the community knows all too well that years and years of frustration with police harassment built the fire, and it isn't limited to Ferguson.

Even in the best scenario, it takes many years and significant resources to change police culture and build trust. To adequately respond to the crisis in Ferguson - for Missourians and across the nation - our leaders must commit to reform, both philosophically and financially. Naysayers should consider costs of reform against the costs of doing nothing: community distrust, loss of life, and chaos in the streets.

We are all witnesses to the fact of Michael Brown's death and the brutality that has followed, by virtue of the ever-present coverage of the news coming out of Ferguson. We have seen the stunning failure of the government to respond with measure, reason or transparency. As witnesses, let's seize this opportunity to participate in ensuring a system of police and government accountability to the people it serves. Each of us is responsible for fighting to make this the priority it deserves to be across the country. For our nation, police accountability is long, embarrassingly and heartbreakingly overdue.

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community