Federal civil rights investigators ordered the Ferguson, Mo., police chief on Friday to ban his officers from wearing bracelets supporting Darren Wilson, the white officer who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in August.
The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Justice Department asked police chief Tom Jackson to "confirm our understanding" that officers in the St. Louis County police department would not wear "I Am Darren Wilson" bracelets while on duty. The bracelets sparked outrage last week when a photo of one spread across social media:
On one level, there's nothing inherently wrong with police officers showing solidarity for a colleague in trouble. Many police officers work hard to keep their communities safe, and support for Wilson has grown over the past month among law enforcement families across the country.
But given the events that have unfolded in Ferguson over the past two months, including new clashes between police and protesters, the St. Louis County police should have known that their simple act would be seen as disgusting and insensitive by Ferguson's black community, and seen as an affront to the family of Michael Brown. They should have known it would have been lambasted by observers across the country as grossly tone-deaf. And they should have known that it would only go to reinforce an "us vs. them" divide between the white police force and black community.
The police officers on foot in Ferguson should have known better. The fact that they did not speaks to much bigger problem than police brutality.
The St. Louis County police department has done basically everything wrong since the death of Michael Brown. They used an incredible show of force to disperse relatively nonviolent demonstrators. They arrested journalists. They threatened protesters with death. They bungled basically every public announcement regarding Brown's death. They even bungled apologizing to Michael Brown's family — six weeks too late.
All of this adds up to one simple fact: Trust in the St. Louis County police, both in Ferguson and in other parts of the country, is very, very low. This should come as no shock to anyone: the Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City poll, conduct before Brown was killed, revealed that just 35% of urban minorities said they had "a lot" of confidence in local law enforcement in their city, while 25% reported "not much" or "no confidence." Compare this with the 48% of urban whites who have "a lot" of confidence in the cops and the 13% who don't. Another poll by USA Today and Pew Research Associates found that 9 out of every 10 African-Americans think the police do an "only fair" or poor job when it comes to "equal treatment or appropriate force."
"Fuck the police" isn't an N.W.A. hook — it's a fact of life.
The media attention generated by Ferguson may have had a significant impact on American attitudes toward law enforcement. More Americans than ever, from all walks of life, now believe that the criminal justice system does not treat African-Americans equally to whites.
In a sense, Ferguson has become something of a microcosm of of the intersection of race and the criminal justice system in America, a litmus test for institutional racism and, with time, a watershed moment in U.S. history for how we think about justice and race in this country.
So how can the Ferguson police stop screwing things up? What we have here is a failure to communicate. Ferguon's mayor has insisted there is no racial divide in the small St. Louis suburb, but when your police force is 94% white and 67.4% African-American, you end up with one community policing another with a serious lack of empathy or understanding. And it's like this across the U.S.: According to a New York Times analysis of a government survey, hundreds of police departments across the country have forces that are 30% whiter than the communities they serve.
This is exactly why diversity at major institutions — whether it's public ones, like police forces or state legislatures, or private ones, from Wall Street to the New York Times — is essential to their success. It allows those in charge to see multiple sides, to understand multiple views and to evaluate and anticipate the social and political complexities of modern life in a way that's just and equitable. There's a reason the Ferguson community flocked to Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson. There's immediate trust, understanding and empathy, something that both the community and the police force sorely need to repair.
The St. Louis County Police Department's motto is "Committed to Our Citizens Through Neighborhood Policing." If the St. Louis PD really wants to commit to its citizens, it can do so by working to earn back the trust of a community scarred by tragedy.
In the meantime, firing their super white public relations firm might be a good idea. If they'd done this a week earlier, the whole bracelet debacle just might have been avoided.