Ferguson decision too little too late

By Editorial Board

After a grand jury’s Nov. 24 decision not to indict Ferguson Police Department Officer Darren Wilson on charges stemming from the death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown, conversations about police brutality and racial profiling erupted nationwide.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles attempted to appease protesters and other disgruntled citizens at a Nov. 30 press conference by announcing that an independent civilian review board would be established to review police shootings in addition to a planned initiative to hire more black police officers in the predominantly white Ferguson Police Department.

Although some commentators argue Knowles’ adjustments are merely superficial tactics to appease disgruntled citizens, they spur discussion and hopefully will lead to change in law enforcement officials’ conduct.

There is a lack of transparency and accountability in how law enforcement releases data. This was seen when criminologist Phil Stinson at Bowling Green State University attempted to uncover how many on-duty officers are indicted in the U.S. and 41 percent of the federal data was missing, as Stinson noted in his Aug. 20 blog post. He received federal funding in 2012 to investigate on-duty shootings by law enforcement and the study, published in 2014, revealed that of the 6,724 arrests of police officers from 2005–2011, 664 involved were arrested for shooting at or threatening someone with a firearm. However, he could not accurately gather how many were brought to trial or convicted in these cases.

It is federally mandated for such information to exist. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was enacted in 1994, which included a provision requiring the attorney general to collect data on excessive use of force by police officers and publish an annual report on the data. But the report is widely believed to be incomplete. A 2003 study by the American Journal of Public Health found inconsistencies in data for justifiable police officer homicides because of the difference in how homicides are classified in different jurisdictions.

There is clearly a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of law enforcement, and the national unrest caused by the grand jury’s decision provides hope that there will be increased effort by police departments to be more reliable and honest. Ferguson residents will more closely monitor the police department now that an independent review board composed of civilians has been established. This should encourage other law enforcement jurisdictions to follow suit. The shooting in Ferguson resulted in violent protests with destruction and the looting of buildings. The protests should concern other cities plagued by poverty and unrest. Implementing a civilian review board, body cameras and better training are all tactics worth examining and possibly establishing in law enforcement jurisdictions throughout the country.

The opportunity to change law enforcement agencies nationwide as a result of this shooting was seen when President Barack Obama announced that he would expand funding and training for local law enforcement jurisdictions, including up to 50,000 body cameras for metropolitan police officers, according to a Dec. 1 White House press release. The president’s funding of improvements in law enforcement training greatly increases the likelihood for changes to occur.

The shooting and the grand jury’s decision sparked a national conversation about racism and police conduct, and the resulting protests across the country keep the conversation relevant. The outrage as a result of the decision to clear Wilson of all charges exposes the underlying unrest in the U.S. It is essential that all citizens feel they can trust law enforcement officials. Better training and transparency are steps in the right direction to make positive changes, and it is commendable government leaders are attempting to do so.