This past week, The Reiff Center was honored to co-sponsor an event dealing with the sensitive, but critical issue of Race. An event entitled Lessons from Ferguson: Race, Law Enforcement and the Potential Abuse of Power explored various aspects of the issues of race and law in the Ferguson crisis, inviting perspectives from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds.
The Reiff Center would like to offer special thanks to our panelists: Dr. Pete Carlson, Government Professor Harry Greenlee, Government Dr. Patricia Hopkins, English Dr. Antonia Randolph, Sociology Their interesting perspectives and comments made for an exciting panel, with agreement, disagreement, and critical knowledge in understanding key issues facing the past, present, and future of this nation. I would like to take some time to outline some major ideas and takeaways from the panel in order to shed light on the issues found in Ferguson, MO and the greater issues of law enforcement.
This talk stems out of the larger national discussion regarding Ferguson, MO, and the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a law enforcement agent. The death of the alleged unarmed Male of Color resulted in a series of both violent and peaceful protests. The local and state government responded harshly to these protests, invoking a state of emergency and calling in specialized forces to quell the upheaval. The issues in Ferguson present questions on Racism in Law, the potential abuse of power by law enforcement, and ideas for preventing future Fergusons. Firstly, I found the discussion on Ferguson representing a greater trend in the national sphere critical to the discussion. Several professors explained an issue of “distrust” of law enforcement by people of color and distrust of people of color by law enforcement. This cultural issue dates back several centuries, and results in the “community of distrust,” as Dr. Hopkins aptly put it. Due to the suspicion, several deep and frightening implications arise from the field of law enforcement. Speaking rhetorically, Hopkins and Randolph both talked of the “fear of the black body,” where the only manner in which the threat – the fear- can be abolished is to “put it down.” This disheartening view demonstrates a monstrous problem that completely degrades the civil rights movement and the American Dream. When the solution to a problem is violence and lethal force, we see the failure of enlightenment, and the failure of human progress, resorting back to primitive aspects of human nature, as theorized by Freud and Hobbes. Along the same lines, Randolph provides several empirical issues in regards to racism and the law. On one hand, there exists no ‘official’ records on the issues of police and lethal force, thus demonstrating a problem in even drawing substantive conclusions about race and law, as empirical evidence fails to support it. Thankfully, non-state actors have attempted to rectify this issue with their own research. Randolph presents data that clearly indicates a racial gap in the enforcement of law. Part of the problem, however, is the lack of official statistics by law enforcement on unjustified lethal force by its officers. A study conducted by ColorLines and the Chicago Reporter of lethal force by law enforcement over the scope of the 10 largest cities shows that the proportion of blacks killed by lethal force, are double the percentage of blacks in the population. Likewise, there is clear evidence on racial gaps in arrests, prison sentencing, and death penalty use, where African Americans and Hispanics receive harsher punishments than their white counterparts. Now, granted, these statistics only tell a part of the greater story, but they do provide a general paradigm in which it becomes clear that race does play some role in the justice system, although more comprehensive research may done to provide empirical evidence. That role is often a negative one, resulting in a system of unfairness, which defeats what many would argue is the whole point of the “Rule of Law.” In the modern world, racism continues to slash at the core of American values, and qualitative evidence and personal experiences continue to drive the cultural divides of whites and blacks.
The second argument comes from the idea of abuse of power and potential abuse of power. All of the panelists agreed that the police response to the protests could in many ways be considered ‘heavy-handed.” One interesting point is that Dr. Carlson, a former Prison Warden, argued that these types of response by the police are actually considered “normal,” as public peace and security must be maintained at all times. He goes on to explain, in his experiences the best way to deal with certain situations is to muster up all the force you can, and quickly stabilize and contain the situation, to the best of your ability. Even so, there are some discrepancies over the legality of the arresting of journalists, the excessive use of force, and the treatment of peaceful protesters. Of course, cases exist outside of Ferguson – that is – unarmed persons being fired upon fatally, and otherwise. Carlson presents an interesting argument regarding this exact issue, the idea that the choice of using lethal force, is one of the most difficult decisions an officer of the law must do. They are placed in high stress situations, where their lives are at risk, and must choose whether or not to fire a weapon. The idea of taking another’s life, even if ‘for the greater good,’ is something that I and many of us cannot even imagine. The officer must risk his/her own life, and must risk others’ as well, all of which comes down to the pulling of a trigger. It’s not easy, I think we can recognize that, but the difficulty level fails to excuse any abuses of power, which become possible due to the system of American law enforcement. In order to mitigate and respond to abuses of power, America must further certain cultural and policy changes, which in the future could prevent another Ferguson, MO.
The panelists offered some broad reform ideas, which could help remedy some of the issues plaguing our system. Dr. Carlson, among others, claimed that the major issue is accountability and transparency in the system. Meaning that, investigations of alleged crimes must be made open and fair. The officer, who gunned down Michael Brown, is currently under investigation, which is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, as Greenlee and Hopkins pointed out, can we be sure that the investigations and conclusions will be fair and justified, due to special interests of the prosecution, which favor protecting the officers. Professor Greenlee argues that we must cut this issue at its roots, meaning that we create a much more stringent system of hiring, in which we keep the uniform away from those who would abuse the power. Several panelists suggested that America dissolves the community of distrust, increases minority percentages on the force, and create positive connections between the police and the communities they protect. Another promising point, is the fact that generational research identifies that those under 30 are more likely to consider the Michael Brown case as an issue of serious concern (PEW). It is often stated that younger generations are more open and progressive, so perhaps in the next few years, we will see a shift in policy and perception. Unfortunately, even with these ideas, the research is spotty, the facts are often biased and warped, the suggestions are idealistic and speculative, and any progress is stilted and limited. Obviously, there is a great deal of work that scholars, policymakers, and individuals still need to complete in order to address this issue comprehensively – if that’s even possible. Is there still hope? We are 151 years form the Emancipation Proclamation, 50 years from the Civil Rights Act, and still there is evidence of a prejudiced Justice System. Granted, as Dr. Greenlee makes it clear, “we are not talking about all cops,” but we are talking about the law enforcement, and the Judges, and the law codes that often tend to prejudice against various races or classes. Thankfully, we have not given up yet, many Americans are hard at work to rectify some of these issues, which result from systemic, cultural, and foundational facets. America is a nation based on basic human rights and a Rule of Law, and it’s not quite there yet. In order for America to be truly exceptional, we must strive to reach the endpoint, as promised by our forefathers, “Liberty and Justice for All.”
Disclaimer: “The views expressed in this post solely reflect the author’s opinion, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Reiff Center or Christopher Newport University.”