Police: From Warriors to Guardians

03/06/2015 11:02 am ET | Updated May 06, 2015
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File

"Some of those protestors were right," said Attorney General Eric Holder as he released the Justice Department's report on the police department in Ferguson, Missouri. The report should be read by anyone who believes in racial justice and reconciliation, because it shows us what we are still up against in 2015, 50 years after the Selma march. This is not a post-racial America, especially in regard to our policing and criminal justice systems. Ferguson has become a teaching parable for the nation.

After a detailed and thorough investigation over many months, the devastating report revealed a police force and court system in Ferguson that proves true much of what young protestors and local residents have been saying since the shooting of Michael Brown last August.

The Ferguson Police Department replaced its mission of public protection with revenue generation by extracting money from the black residents of their town, using methods that the Justice Department said "may be unlawful." The report painfully and painstakingly reveals unconstitutional and consistently abusive policing aimed at balancing the city budget on the backs of its poorest and black citizens. The Ferguson police went beyond even racial profiling to direct racist exploitation for a profit, with police apparently more concerned about " fill[ing] the revenue pipeline" than protecting public safety. The use of traffic stops, citations, court appearances, fines, and even arrests that were specifically targeted at black residents revealed a profound contempt for black people, with racial slurs and abuse a daily occurrence. Disgusting racist jokes, even aimed at the president and the first lady, circulated in emails from police supervisors and court officials. One joked about a black mother getting a crime prevention award for having an abortion.

Though they make up 67 percent of the population of Ferguson, blacks accounted for 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, 93 percent of arrests, 88 percent of cases involving the use of force, 92 percent of cases in which arrest warrants were issued, and 96 percent of the people held at the Ferguson jail for more than two days. Stopping people for no apparent reason was common in Ferguson, using Tasers and other force if they objected. Completely made-up charges were used, said the report, again, mostly against black residents, for "Manner of Walking" (95 percent), "Failure to Comply" (94 percent), and "Peace Disturbance" (92 percent). One hundred percent of police dog bite victims were black.

I was heartbroken by real people's experiences, like the formerly homeless women who ended up owing more than $1,000 and spending six days in jail for her car being parked in the wrong place. It seems like every black person and family in Ferguson has a story. And the Justice Department found that these stark racial disparities could not be explained even when corrected for crime rates and neighborhood demographics, concluding that "Ferguson law enforcement practices are directly shaped and perpetuated by racial bias."

The DOJ did not find enough evidence to convict officer Darren Wilson of civil rights violations in his shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, which was expected, given the high bar of evidence required for that. But Eric Holder said this:

Seen in this context -- amid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices -- it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off a city of Ferguson like a powder keg.

Coincidentally, or providentially, as some of us see things, this week also saw the official release of "The Interim Report of the President's Taskforce on 21st Century Policing," also worth a serious read. Some of us were invited to meet with the impressive group of law enforcement professionals and civil rights and community leaders who shared a hopeful vision of how this tragic moment in time could lead to a historic turning point for change. Their recommendations respond to "the legitimate issues that people have in their communities" with "the opportunity to fix these systems." One member said, "We have a moment in time."

Reforming police practices will require a deeper look at the criminal justice system, they said, along with a deeper look into our very society. They hope the report could "shift law enforcement" by "creating new momentum." Each commission member highlighted the steps for change they thought most important, saying that to move forward, we must:

  • Realize that this is more than a police problem but also a criminal justice system and societal problem.
  • Acknowledge past mistakes and damage on all sides -- and signal the need for change.
  • Implement training that sets a new culture and is constitutionally grounded.
  • Change the dynamic between the community and the police with engagement, not only during crisis but in everyday life -- moving from a reactive stance to a proactive one.
  • Establish a community presence aimed at slowly building trust to replace long-standing mistrust. (I especially liked the idea of cops coaching Little League!)
  • Treat both the police and those they relate to with dignity and fairness with both internal and external procedural justice.
  • Change aggressive and provocative behavior during demonstrations.
  • Process and investigate shooting deaths by the police externally and independently.
  • Aim for more than crime reduction; understand the potential costs of aggressive law enforcement.
  • Implement audio/visual technologies, including cameras.
  • Demilitarize local police departments.
  • Redevelop community and neighborhood policing.
  • End the school-to-prison pipeline.
  • Learn and adapt the principles and practices of restorative justice.

Let's remember that even having this conversation about policing reform is a direct result of what happened in Ferguson, when a new generation of leaders rose up every day to voice protest to a system that is broken. Brittany Packnett, one of those young Ferguson leaders, was on this commission. I want to thank her and her tireless brothers and sisters in Ferguson who did the "heavy lifting," day after day, helping lead us to this place of real opportunity.

Perhaps the best language in the report was offered by Commissioner Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, calling for a new and yet old policing vocation by "transforming the warrior model into the guardian model." That's a mission many of us in the faith community will be eager to support, offering to be a partner, a connecter, and an intermediary between the police and our communities.

Jim Wallis is the president of Sojourners. His book The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God's Side, is available now.