Demographics & Heavy Weapons: The Lessons of Ferguson

Demographics & Heavy Weapons: The Lessons of Ferguson

By Lou Cannon - August 19, 2014

Latent anxieties about police behavior in dealing with African-Americans and other minorities have bubbled to the surface nationwide after the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer.

We still don’t know why Darren Wilson, the officer, killed Brown, who was unarmed and who some witnesses say had his hands in the air at the time he was shot. But we have learned a lot in a short time about the Ferguson Police Department, and most of it is not comforting.

Start with the demographics. Fifty of the 53 members of the force are white, according to reports, and only three are black. Some accounts have said this is similar to the overall proportion of whites to minorities on other small police forces.

That’s not quite right. According to the Department of Justice, about 75 percent of police officers are white on all police forces; the percentage of whites on small-city forces is 87.5 percent. The percentage for the Ferguson Police Department is 94.6 percent white in a city in which the population is two-thirds African-American.

Before saying that the Ferguson department is typical, as many commentators have, we’d need to know the racial compositions of police forces in other cities that are majority black.

Demographics may not be destiny, as has been famously claimed, but they make a difference on the margins. Troubled small cities from Richmond, Calif., to Gary, Ind., have increased the number of African-American or Latino officers and seen improvements in relationships with minority communities as well as a decline in crime.

Los Angeles, where the most deadly urban riot of the 20th century occurred in 1992, has made a concerted effort to recruit more minority officers. Some 32 percent of the LAPD is now minority—we’re talking about 3,200 officers in a force of 10,000—in a city in which the population is only 29 percent white.

As western correspondent for The Washington Post, I covered the 1992 riots, which were triggered by the acquittal in suburban Simi Valley of four LAPD officers accused of using excessive force against Rodney King. Subsequently, I wrote a book about the King case and its aftermath.

Although it’s a reach to compare Los Angeles, the nation’s second most populous city, with Ferguson, a tiny suburb of St. Louis, the shooting of Michael Brown has stirred memories of the LAPD at the time of the riots.

Start with the behavior of the leadership of the Ferguson police. At least Daryl Gates, the famous LAPD chief, didn’t arrest any reporters. But he also took no responsibility for the failure of his department during a catastrophic breakdown in which 54 people lost their lives. Police forces, even the best of them, tend to be para-military in organization. I found that in the 1992 riots, the rank-and-file of the LAPD for the most part performed bravely and professionally but were let down by superiors who at first denied that riots were a possibility and then dithered in the face of verdicts that outraged African-Americans.

Thomas Jackson, the Ferguson police chief, waited days before releasing the name of the officer who had killed Brown. The department then also released video of Brown allegedly committing a robbery, suggesting to an inflamed citizenry that the police thought this justified the shooting even though the officer involved did not know the robbery had occurred. In dealing with public protests, the first response of the Ferguson Police Department before control of the situation was turned over to the highway patrol was to deploy personnel in riot gear with heavy weapons and an armored car, more appropriate in facing a terrorist attack.

It was a real terrorist attack, in fact, that caused the Ferguson police to have this heavy military equipment. In this respect, at least, Ferguson IS typical of other U.S. police departments. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the federal agency that would become the Homeland Security Department, decided that every town in America should be prepared to repel a terrorist attack. The Department of Defense, with surplus weapons to spare, was only too happy to oblige. Some tiny police forces now have tanks.

Daryl Gates, the creator of the Special Weapons and Tactics teams (SWAT) that have been so widely copied by other departments, would have been amazed to find a small police force so well armed. In his early days as chief, Gates had to battle with city authorities just to obtain a police helicopter, now standard equipment for many departments.

Gates was right about helicopters, which are immensely useful for observation and other purposes. But armored cars and tanks and heavy weapons are dubious police adornments that should remain with the military from whence they came.

We don’t yet know the full story of the Michael Brown shooting. But we know enough to say that the Ferguson Police Department needs many more minority officers and considerably less military equipment. 

Lou Cannon is the author of “Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD.”

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