FERGUSON, Missouri – John Bowman never expected he’d see his former colleagues at the center of a national controversy. Bowman spent 15 of his 28 years in law enforcement working for the Ferguson police department, and he insists it’s a good group of people who've been unfairly targeted after one of its white officers shot and killed an unarmed black teenager this summer.
"In any profession there are people who are racist, that's in your heart. But I never saw any of that," said Bowman. "A lot of the anger that citizens have that are directed at Ferguson police, I think they're directed at police in general."
When Bowman was on the force he says he too experienced some of that animosity.
"I felt it all the time in uniform. People would make statements all the time, 'Oh, I hate the police,'" said Bowman, now the director of public safety at Lindenwood University in nearby St. Charles, Missouri. "'Well, you don't even know me. This is the first time you ever met me.' But they might have had a negative encounter with a police officer in the past. And they just think all police officers are like that."
'Ferguson's getting hit'
Bowman said he was sad the day he learned of the deadly shooting involving Brown and his former colleague, Darren Wilson. Although he didn’t really know Wilson, he worked with him for a couple of years, talking to him in the hallways and during roll call.
Over the past three months, the small police department has come under intense criticism for the shooting of Mike Brown and the way it was handled. Many people in the community were angry that the teenager's body was left in the street for several hours. Protesters from Ferguson and the surrounding counties took the streets and said the incident was a symptom of a racist and corrupt police department. Bowman denied that.
“I think the police were in a bad situation because if they would have just picked up the body and just ran with it and just did a shoddy investigation or a quick investigation, people wouldn’t be happy about that," he said. “So, I think no matter what, there’s going to be these detractors for the police department on this situation.”
You can only get yelled at so many times and bottles thrown at you and being threatened and stuff. But they’re hanging on.
Former Ferguson police officer
In response to the police's actions, the federal government launched two separate investigations, including an FBI civil rights inquiry into the shooting and a Justice Department probe into whether police in Ferguson have a history of discrimination or misuse of force. A 2013 Missouri Attorney’s General report showed blacks made up 86 percent of traffic stops in Ferguson despite making up only 67 percent of the population.
Despite the numbers, Bowman said the officers in Ferguson do good work.
“Ferguson's getting hit with everything,” he said. “Anything that's wrong in the metropolitan area, it's Ferguson's getting hit with it.”
And he knows the stress has been wearing the department down.
“At the height of the protest, they were getting drained,” he said. “You can only get yelled at so many times and bottles thrown at you and being threatened and stuff. But they’re hanging on.”
The old Ferguson PD
Many have criticized the Ferguson police force as disconnected from the community: a largely white force, living out of town, policing predominately black neighborhoods.
About 12 years ago, Bowman said Ferguson police were heavily involved in community policing. He lived in the area he patrolled and was a resource officer in Ferguson elementary schools, where he said he knew many children by name and watched them grow up.
“I always tried to reach the people I was dealing with, whether it be students or the parents in the community… and give them respect,” he said.
But Bowman said community policing went away seven or eight years ago. And he'd like to see the ties between the community and the police force rebuilt. He recently applied – although wasn't selected – for a position on the Ferguson Commission, a newly developed governor’s task force created to help address many of the racial and economic disparities and other concerns in the St. Louis region.
“You get the community more involved – you get them in hiring boards, get the young African Americans and minorities involved in wanting to become police officers,” Bowman said, explaining that the department used to have an Explorer program in which kids could ride along with law enforcement.
And as the greater St. Louis area braces for the grand jury decision in Wilson's case, Bowman hopes the coming days remain peaceful.
“I have no problem with peaceful protesting. That's part of the fabric of our Constitution – protest things that you disagree with,” he said. “But what I disagree with is when the protestors are yelling that they want the police officer to die.”