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The circumstances surrounding the Aug. 9 killing of a black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., have sparked nightly protests by outraged citizens, drawing international attention as violent clashes erupted between residents and militarized police patrolling the suburban streets. Accusations that police were harassing people or using excessive force — firing tear gas and stun grenades and pointing rifles at peaceful protesters and journalists — have further stoked tensions.
This week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder visited Ferguson amid concern that local and state officials had mishandled both the protests and the investigation into Michael Brown’s shooting death and that efforts by county police to protect the officer from public scrutiny indicate that officials cannot conduct a thorough and fair review of Brown’s killing. Holder has ordered federal prosecutors to investigate, with dozens of FBI agents interviewing witnesses and a federal medical examiner performing an autopsy on Brown’s body.
Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard, the George F. Baker Jr. Professor of Public Management at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and the Eliot I. Snider and Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, teaches leadership and organizational strategy and is co-director of the Program on Crisis Leadership at HKS. Leonard spoke with the Gazette via email about the ongoing chaos in Ferguson and assessed the crisis-management response.
Q: How would you characterize what’s going on in Ferguson, Mo.? Are there comparable events?
Leonard: We have seen heavy police presence in hard gear in American cities before. I recall the riots in Los Angeles, Detroit, and other cities in the 1960s, for example, and the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992, which among other things involved the deployment of federal troops. Ferguson, however — as well as the deployment of tactical teams in Watertown after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing — indicates a new level of militarization of police forces that seems to be without precedent. While this may be justifiable and a good approach in some circumstances (a terrorist attack, for example), I think Ferguson shows that if misapplied, it can also lead to an escalation rather than a resolution of civil disturbances.
Q: How unusual is it for the attorney general to get involved, and what does it tell you about what’s going on behind the scenes?
Leonard: It is highly unusual for the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the United States to intercede personally in a specific enforcement matter. I think it signals a belief in the highest circles in Washington that the events in Ferguson are of critical national importance. And it signals (and is designed to signal) to all of those involved in the ongoing event — the investigation, the peacekeeping actions, the public relations, and so on — that the significance of this event goes far beyond the local domain in which it began.
Q: To what extent is the ongoing chaos a function of that original incident, and to what extent is it a result of ineffective crisis management?
Leonard: I think you have to see it as a product of both. The original incident is tragic and emotionally intense, and in the absence of definitive information about what exactly happened (which will intrinsically take time to develop), it is fraught with issues and questions and ambiguities about who we are as a nation, about the extent of racism that may still be embedded in police and other institutions, about racial justice. It thus goes to the core of identity issues for our country and for our people as a whole, and for each of us in the various subgroups with which we self-identify. Identity issues — who are we, and how are we seen, and whether we are respected by others — are among the hottest issues we ever deal with. And the precipitating incident here instantly pushes all of those buttons.
Moreover, the nature of events like these is that definitive, agreed details about exactly what happened will be scant in the early days, which means that the situation will be fueled in part by rumor, innuendo, false reports, and small amounts of accurate information deeply intertwined with large amounts of misinformation. In such a setting, those so inclined — and there will be many — will be able to build their anger by selectively choosing which “facts” to believe. This, again, is not just predictable, it is a certainty. This accentuates the volatility of the event.
The nature of the initial event, then, is that it is intensely hot and potentially explosive. What it desperately needs, then, is de-escalating influences. Given how obviously hot the original incident was and is, the response to the protests appears to have been grievously misguided. It was entirely predictable that there would be a major reaction in the streets of Ferguson, and that the level of intensity on the part of different demonstrators would vary widely, ranging from peaceful vigils to active, angry protest and possibly beyond, to violent and destructive looting, all of which, in fact, have taken place. Some protesters are simply more willing and better able to contain their emotions and reactions than others.
Meeting that range of reactions with police officers in combat gear and armored vehicles is tantamount to further provocation, and sure enough it immediately escalated the situation by incensing some of the crowd. The situation called for calming and stabilizing influences and interventions. Confronting a crowd that is grieving the death of an unarmed teenager, whatever the exact circumstances of his death were, with a phalanx of police officers pointing military weapons and firing tear gas in the direction of the crowd from behind or within armored vehicles and wearing combat body armor is anything but calming. Trying to intimidate an angry crowd into submission by visibly threatening extreme violence is a recipe for the disaster we have been watching unfold. read more