When Police Violate Our Values, 'Ferguson' Happens

Lack of values, justice and fairness between police and black Americans is the decades-long backdrop leading up to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and so many others that are part of the "Ferguson Effect" in our country.
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The outcries throughout our country -- protests, demonstrations, disruptions of traffic, and riots -- that have dotted our collective landscape since white Ferguson police office Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown isn't just about Ferguson, the city. It's about the hundreds and thousands of "Fergusons" throughout our country where black youth are by-definition disadvantaged in their relationship with police simply because they're black.

It's about the fact that police throughout our country have systematically violated our shared American values, which instruct us to have respect, provide equality, live together as community, and do the right thing. It's about the distrust that the black community has of police and that the white community can no longer ignore or tolerate.

For the purpose of this post, I'm calling this disconnect, dissonance, turmoil and distrust the "Ferguson Effect."

I saw this "Ferguson Effect" first hand in Cleveland, where police are currently under siege because of the recent killing of 12-year old Tamir Rice (who was waving a toy gun) by a white police officer. Recently, a scathing U.S. Justice Department report also condemned the Cleveland Police Department for excessive and arbitrary use of force, lack of accountability, and systemic disregard and disrespect.

Six or seven years ago, my wife Susan was traveling to do a Project Love school training at a Cleveland public school when she was pulled over by a white Cleveland police officer for slightly speeding in a school zone. She apologized and explained to the officer that she was late for a Power of Kindness workshop for tenth graders in the neighborhood high school across the street. The officer responded that nothing could possibly change the "wild animals in that school" and that, although well intentioned, my wife was obviously misdirected.

My wife responded that the officer didn't know that a little love could go a long way and that amazing turnarounds had come about from our programming, leading to increased kindness, less violence and increased graduation rates. Couldn't he possibly excuse her from the ticket? she asked. His answer was no, but he offered that, if he were in court when she appeared and she reminded him about the circumstances, he would talk to the prosecutor about giving her a lesser charge that had no points.

So far, so good, but here's where the "Ferguson Effect" unfolds.

I accompanied my wife to court, where she pointed out the officer to me. I approached the officer, introduced myself, and reminded him about the offer he had made to my wife. He told me that he remembered, and that he would speak to the prosecutor, which he then did. He also told me that my wife seemed like a nice lady, but that she was misguided in her efforts to help disadvantaged kids -- they were just incorrigible!

A few minutes later, he returned to where I was standing and stood next to me while the court proceedings unfolded. Preceding my wife's case was the case of a young black man whose car was stopped and searched, and in which the police discovered a concealed hand gun. The prosecutor described the charges to the judge, and the judge asked the police officer to corroborate the described events, which he did. The judge then turned to the young man, asking if he had anything to say to the court.

"I don't think that was the cop who stopped me," he said matter-of-fact to the judge.

The courtroom hushed while the judge asked the police officer if he indeed had been at the scene when the car was searched.

"No, your honor, I'm standing in for the arresting officer because he couldn't be here."

"Case dismissed," the judge declared. The young black man was free to go.

My wife's police officer spontaneously turned to me and, cupping his hand over his mouth, whispered into my ear, "He should have said yes! Who's the judge gonna believe -- a black kid or a Cleveland police officer?"

My wife's case was next. The prosecutor politely asked her, "You want no points?" to which she sheepishly said yes. She pled guilty to operating a car with a broken tail light.

I didn't realize it then, but my wife's plea is a suitable metaphor to the brokenness of a criminal justice system where police officers allow white people to get off for a broken tail light while the same cops violate their values, incriminating blacks by lying to the court.

The same breach of values occurred when black Cleveland teenagers Rickey Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman were imprisoned for 39 years for killing a man based on accusations from then-12-year-old Eddie Vernon, who recently recanted. He now says that the Cleveland police pressured him, even feeding him facts about the case. And this violation occurred when unarmed black man Levar Jones was shot by white South Carolina state trouper Sean Groubart, who claimed that the Jones came at him in a threatening way. A body cam showed that Jones was actually complying.

Lack of values, justice and fairness between police and black Americans is the decades-long backdrop leading up to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and so many others that are part of the "Ferguson Effect" in our country. And that's what makes our outrage to Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and other communities so explosive, difficult and problematic. We can train police how to fire a gun, but can we train them how to use our values in their mission to protect and serve?

As challenging as this may be, we must; that is, if we're to have a country that lives the values we profess to have. Our communities must now have honest and civil conversations about who we are and how we treat each other if we're to achieve the idea and ideals, vision and values that we all share. And as we discuss and evaluate the "Ferguson Effect," and resolve to do better, America will grow.

Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us
Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org

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