Lauren Victoria Burke / AP

Policing the police: Unrest in Ferguson could lead to lasting reform

Recent precedent shows a way to improve standards, but attempts at reform could be met with officers’ resistance

The unrest in Ferguson is not the first time that streets have smoldered over the killing of an unarmed African-American teen — but past incidents have shown that such outbursts of public discontent over a perceived injustice can lead to police reform.

In 2001 riots erupted in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood after 19-year-old Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by a white police officer — the 15th young African-American man to be killed by police in Cincinnati in six years, with no criminal or civil charges ensuing.

The black community was incensed, with protesters taking to the streets for four nights, lobbing rocks and bottles at police officers and chanting “15 black men.” Vandalism and looting resulted in an estimated $3.6 million in damage in the city, with a subsequent boycott of downtown businesses costing another $10 million.

But from that chaos arose reforms to police procedures that activists had long sought, thanks in part to federal intervention.

With the cooperation of the city, the Department of Justice (DOJ) opened a wide-ranging investigation into law enforcement practices in Cincinnati that led to changes regarding the use of force, the treatment of mentally ill suspects and the flagging and tracking of problematic behavior by officers. The process took nearly a decade to complete, but in the end it was hailed as a national model for police reform.

DOJ officials are said to be contemplating a similar move in Ferguson, Missouri, where federal investigators are looking into 18-year-old Michael Brown’s shooting death on Aug. 9 by Officer Darren Wilson. A broader civil rights inquiry like the one undertaken in Cincinnati could look at possible systemic constitutional violations by the Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments.

“I think that certainly there is enough information right now on each of these agencies [the Ferguson and St. Louis County police] that I would hope the civil rights division is paying very, very close attention, not just to the specific investigation of what happened to Michael Brown, which is really important, but also to systemic problems that are affecting people in those communities every day and led to what happened to Michael Brown,” said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the criminal law reform project at the American Civil Liberties Union.  

The DOJ has been conducting such audits of local police departments since 1994, when, in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots over the acquittal of the cops charged with brutally beating Rodney King, Congress empowered the civil rights division of the DOJ to look into civil rights violations by state and local law enforcement agencies.

In Barack Obama’s administration, Attorney General Eric Holder has been aggressive in pursuing such investigations, entering into legal agreements with at least nine police departments around the country to mandate reforms and ensure compliance.

Many of those familiar with such investigations say they yields mixed results, depending on the cooperation of the police, the buy-in of other community leaders and the heavy-handedness of DOJ investigators.

“It’s uneven. Sometimes what they do is excellent. It’s as good in practice as in policy. Other times it’s not as good,” said Geoff Alpert, a professor at the University of South Carolina who studies police behavior and use of force. “But once the Justice Department gets involved, there’s basically no stone unturned.”

Investigators collect records, interview police officers, watch cops on the beat and do a thorough review of departmental data before implementing new policies.

In 1998, Charles Ramsey had just been sworn in as the new police commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., when The Washington Post ran a series of stories alleging that the police there fatally shot more people per capita than any other police department in the country.

Ramsey tried to institute reforms focusing on training, use of deadly force and conduct but ultimately decided he needed outside help. “We as a department lacked the credibility with the community to come up with changes that people would accept and understand, so I took a chance,” he said. “No one had asked DOJ to come in and look at their department before that.”

He said the key to productive reforms was working with the DOJ — easier for him because he initiated the investigation.

“The relationship was not adversarial, and they actually provided a lot of support and lot of help,” he said. “We could not have made the changes without their assistance.”

Ramsey’s experience was so positive that after he became Philadelphia’s police commissioner nearly a decade later, he invited the DOJ’s new office of community oriented policing services (COPS) to work with his officers again.

In other quarters, the process has been far more fraught. After the killing of a homeless Native American woodcarver (the carving knife he was holding was folded when he was shot by police) and other incidents involving minorities, the DOJ opened an investigation and mandated wide-ranging reforms for the Seattle Police Department in 2012. Earlier this year, about 100 police officers asked a judge to block the agreement — called a consent decree — arguing that it imposed onerous and unrealistic standards on them. In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu initially asked for federal help in reforming his police department in the wake of abuse allegations during Hurricane Katrina and then tried to get the consent decree voided in court, saying the city could not bear the $17 million cost.

“Police departments are resistant to change — particularly change that isn’t coming from within. There is an inherent judgment when the DOJ comes in and start to investigate,” Edwards said. “Having the federal government swoop in from above and only do change top down is limited. It can be spurred from the top down, but it has to come from the community.”

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