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Tensions are extremely high in Ferguson, Missouri, five days after an unarmed young black teenager was shot and killed by police while walking home from a convenience store with a friend. Upset residents have taken to the streets to protest, sparking violent demonstrations and multiple arrests.
Christine Cole, executive director of Harvard Kennedy School's Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, provides us with her perspective on these tragic events.
Q: Based on what you know about this case, was the shooting and the response it provoked in the community the result of a systematic failure?
Cole: A number of authorities will look at the actual shooting, and when all the facts are in we will have a better understanding of what happened.
The response by the community is something we have seen after similar incidents in other parts of the country, and perhaps points to a distrust or a lack of confidence or concern on the part of community residents toward police. These feelings of distrust are often enhanced in communities of color.
I have to wonder about the level of engagement between the community and police in Ferguson up until now. You can’t build relationships in crisis; they have to already be established.
People, including the police in some instances, have underestimated the importance of police-community relations in everyday situations both in big cities as well as smaller communities. There are racial tensions that persist in the U.S., and we all need to work harder every day to build trust among law enforcement agencies and the community so that in times of crisis there is an established foundation of trust. So when incidents that can fuel distrust occur, all parties can stop and figure it out together as a community.
Q: What would releasing the police officer’s name accomplish?
Cole: I’m not sure it accomplishes anything. I feel like it would be about blame at this point. We should leave that decision to those conducting the investigation.
Q: How best can authorities move forward with an investigation that satisfies the public and the need to determine the facts?
Cole: There are multiple agencies that are currently in Ferguson and I would encourage the community and the police to be engaged in, as well as trust the process. On the part of government—I hope the federal, state, and local entities include resident involvement and input so there is full understanding of the investigatory process and the path forward.
Seeing the response from both the community and the police, it is my guess there are concerns that pre-date this event. We need to understand the message the crowds are sending, and the police need to keep the community safe and use community policing strategies, including engagment and problem solving, to end what now looks like a conflict. More force is not the best response.
Q: What are some possible long-term solutions the department needs to consider?
Cole: I think we have two problems here — one is a questionable use of force, and the second is the apparent lack of trust between the community and the police department that likely predate this very troubling and difficult incident.
I think it is paramount for all police departments, not just the Ferguson department, to embrace the paradigms of community policing. Community participation, openness, and understanding of both resident and police concerns must be first and foremost.