Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ferguson didn't have to be Ferguson

I worked for a few years as a reporter in Chicago. In stints as the night cops guy and on general assignment, I covered more than a few of what the police department called "police-involved shootings." In layman's terms, that meant an officer had shot someone.

The narrative was often the same, and the key bit recited in roughly identical terms each time: "... and the officer, in fear for his life, fired [insert number here] times, fatally wounding the suspect." That was important because officers were not allowed to use deadly force unless they were in fear for their lives or those of others.

I won't go into how tough it is to report these stories. The police and coroner often control most of the relevant information, and witnesses implicating an officer in wrongdoing seldom have any evidence like photos or video. Former colleagues did an excellent job laying out exactly how dangerous this was in this story.

What I want to discuss, though, is how none of those situations--and some of them were horrific--led to the kinds of scenes we're seeing in Ferguson, Mo., right now.

In one specific case, I went out to cover the non-fatal shooting of a boy who police shot in the street near Cabrini-Green, back when it was still in the twilight days of being a housing project. He had been carrying a toy gun and lived in the neighborhood. The community was, as you might imagine, furious; demands for justice and answers were being shouted from the sidewalks within hours of the shooting.

After talking to the boy's relatives at the hospital where he was being operated on, I went back to the neighborhood, where a protest was taking shape. It was pretty big, a few hundred people. There were signs, megaphones, shouted slogans. Again, most of it was about justice. But there was some general "cops are pigs!" sentiment too.

They marched around the neighborhood. There were plenty of police on hand, lining the streets and standing by their squad cars. I think a few rocks were thrown; I know (because I heard) some coarse comments about cops' mothers were shouted.

But it never escalated. I got home at 2 or 3 a.m., having dictated a story from a pool car. The story wasn't about a riot. It was about a shooting of an unarmed kid that stirred up a neighborhood.

That's just one example. The Chicago police shot people in worse parts of town--places that often were torn apart by violence without any instigation at all. But I can't remember any instance turning into a Ferguson-type situation.

The aforementioned situation.

I wish I could put my finger on exactly why. I think there are several factors.

For all its faults (and some are quite serious), the Chicago Police Department understood the law, the media and the nuances of dealing with various communities. So you didn't see reporters or anyone else arrested just for "being there" or taking pictures, for instance.

And the only time I can remember seeing cops in riot gear was during anti-Iraq war street protests downtown. Even then, their presence was mostly passive and certainly didn't involve rubber bullets, tear gas or beanbag shotgun rounds... at least to my memory.

So rather than rush in and try to intimidate or control unhappy people with an overwhelming show of force--an act that, rightly or wrongly, makes most people feel like they are combatants rather than citizens--police keep acting like police. The same people that most residents see every day in their neighborhoods. It's an important psychological distinction, thinking cops are there to maintain order rather than simply to fight. Because fight is exactly what some people then show up to do.

There is a separate, but related and serious issue of police departments chowing down on surplus military gear from the U.S. presence in the Middle East; this piece gives a tremendous rundown.

In the end, I don't know what the precisely right response in Ferguson would have been. I suspect that more transparency into the shooting investigation and much less militarized police presence (and now the National Guard, whee!) would have been great first steps.

Unfortunately, now that we're at this point, I don't know where you go. I guess the good news is, it can't get any worse. But in my more-or-less direct experience, it didn't have to be like this at all.