Blog, Sociology

Reflections on Ferguson: Two Deeply Disturbing and Highly Conflicting Stories

Originally posted on December 4, 2014 on the Huffington Post

By any measure, what happened in Ferguson is deeply disturbing. It is nothing less than a monumental tragedy. How could the death of yet another unarmed black teenager fail to ignite widespread outrage and, unfortunately, violent demonstrations? The death of one unarmed black teenager is one death too many.

However, there is another aspect of the tragedy that I also find disturbing. This aspect has received virtually no acknowledgement, and hence no discussion at all. As we know, there are essentially two widely conflicting and, on the surface, at least, deeply incompatible stories of what happened. For most people, to believe one story is to automatically judge the other totally wrong. In contrast, I believe that both stories are “right” and “wrong” in the sense that both have elements of credibility. That is, neither is totally right or totally wrong. Of course, merely to say this is to incur the wrath of both sides, for how could they be equally credible, if indeed they are?

In one story, Michael Brown is clearly the villain. According to this version of events, Officer Darren Wilson acted out of dire fear for his life. Brown had just committed petty theft. A surveillance tape shows him pushing a convenience-store clerk and making off with stolen cigarillos. According to his friend Dorian Johnson, who was with him during the theft and at the encounter with Wilson, Brown was planning to use the cigarillos to roll marijuana cigarettes. Because Wilson had been alerted to the recent theft over the police radio, he was on the lookout for the perpetrator. When he came upon Brown and Johnson walking in the middle of the street, he realized Brown fit the profile. When Wilson, sitting in his car, asked Brown to step out of the street and onto the sidewalk, Brown, instead of complying as he should have, became belligerent. Wilson attempted to get out of the car, but Brown slammed the door shut, knocking Wilson back into the car. Brown then violently confronted Wilson through the car window, savagely punching him in the face. Rightly fearing for his life, Wilson reached for his gun, but Brown wrestled him for it, and in the tussle the gun went off in the car and left an unmistakable injury on Brown’s thumb, demonstrating that he had indeed been at close range at the time. Brown fled, and Wilson got out of the car and pursued him, firing multiple shots when Brown turned back around and appeared to be charging Wilson. At least one of the shots was fatal. Brown’s intimating size and weight figured into Wilson’s decision to use deadly force. Because the grand jury believed Wilson’s testimony, they voted not to indict him. The grand jury also voted not to indict so as not to undermine police authority.

In the other story, Officer Wilson is the clear villain. According to this version of events, Wilson was the aggressor. Unaware of the convenience-story theft, he came upon Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson walking in the middle of the street and, from inside his car, rudely ordered them to get on the sidewalk using profanity. When Brown didn’t comply quickly enough, an enraged Wilson attempted to get out of the car, but the car door ricocheted off Brown’s body, knocking Wilson back into the car and further enraging him. He seized Brown through the car window, and a tussle ensued, with Wilson’s gun going off inside the car and Brown fleeing, fearing for his life. Wilson got out of the car and pursued him, firing multiple shots. Realizing he’d been struck, Brown stopped and turned back around, facing Wilson and putting his hands up in surrender, but Wilson fired several more shots, killing Brown. The death of another innocent and unarmed black teenager understandably outraged the black community. Michael Brown was not a thug, as some in the media portrayed him, but a “gentle giant” who was getting ready to go off to college. There is no way that he was a threat to law and order. The grand jury was wrong in failing to indict Wilson. If Wilson had been brought to trial, then he would have been cross-examined in a proper manner. Once again, black people were denied justice. The shooting of Michael Brown is another example of the racism that is rampant in American society.

On the surface, it is seemingly impossible to reconcile these two sharply conflicting stories, yet this is exactly what we must do if we are to learn from the tragedy and get beyond it, if one can ever truly get beyond a horrific tragedy.

Both stories have elements that ring true. Brown clearly committed a theft, for which he needed to be apprehended and arrested. Moreover, his considerable size and weight would have intimidated most officers, who, by virtue of the nature of their jobs, live in perpetual fear for their lives. On the other hand, it is not difficult to believe that Wilson also inappropriately provoked Brown, thereby leading to an avoidable tragedy. For this reason I believe that Wilson should have been indicted, if only on a lesser charge like involuntary manslaughter, so that he and the witnesses to the tragedy could have been cross-examined publicly in a court of law.

One of the most difficult tasks for human beings is to accept that there are elements of truth in widely conflicting accounts of horrific tragedies. But that is the task with which we humans are charged repeatedly. What single story ever has a monopoly on truth? If there is ever anything approaching the truth, is it not arrived at and known through the clashing of two widely conflicting accounts of events?

All of this suggests what is required if we are to move on, and why it’s so difficult for us to do so. Those who believe the first story have to accept that in not indicting Wilson, justice was not done in the eyes of those who believe the second story. And those who believe the second story have to accept that Michael Brown was not entirely innocent. But in no way does the theft justify his being shot, let alone fatally.

In short, both sides have to accept a fundamental part of the other’s story.

F. Scott Fitzgerald put it best when he wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” We are far indeed from even approaching a society with “first-rate intelligence.”

Blog, Crisis Management

Crisis Management 101: A Wakeup Call for Law Enforcement Organizations Everywhere

Originally posted August 19, 2014 on the Huffington Post

To say the least, the shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri raises highly disturbing and troubling issues for law enforcement agencies everywhere. It is imperative that they learn and put into practice immediately, the most critical lessons from Crisis Management. Let us list briefly a few of the many lessons:

1. A crisis is the worst of all possible times to conduct a review of department policies and actions. Indeed, crises generally drag departments through the mud relentlessly with regard to their current and past behavior. The result is that calm, contemplative institutional change gets lost in the din of the crisis. Everything is exposed and criticized for all to see. Long-range damage is done. Affected individuals and communities not only stage legitimate protests, and sadly, violence often erupts as anger towards the police boils over. For this reason, before major crises occur, police agencies need to conduct regular, ongoing Crisis Audits of their strengths and vulnerabilities. They need to imagine the unimaginable. They need to surface and address potential crises long before they occur. They need to bring in outsiders, such as members of police community advisory boards who can perform hard-hitting, no-holds barred assessments of their susceptibilities with regard to potential crises of all kinds. Outsiders also need to be involved in reviewing the lessons that should have been learned and implemented from past crises. It is not that outsiders are perfectly “objective and unbiased,” for no one possess these desirable attributes. Rather, outsiders are indispensable in surfacing and challenging taken-for-granted assumptions and practices that insiders are often reluctant unwilling to face.

2. Again, with the help of outsiders, realistic assessments of the ethnic and racial compositions of law enforcement agencies need to be performed. Members from surrounding communities need to be involved in such assessments and with all aspects of Crisis Management. Outsiders and members need to be involved in plans for correcting ethnic and racial imbalances. This takes transparency and community involvement to new levels.

3. Realistic simulations of worst-case scenarios such as the shootings of unarmed teenagers need to be performed and assessed on a regular basis. The simulations need to cover what can occur before, during, and after such events. Good crisis simulations also cover what happens when any single crisis sets off a chain reaction of other crises. That is, crises virtually never occur in isolation. To be prepared for one and only one type of crisis is not to be prepared at all. Further, no simulation is worthwhile if it doesn’t take a hard look at the assumptions governing when it is allowable to use the various legal and policy approved levels of force in responding to any situation.

4. Finally, Crisis Management needs to be an integral of the “new skill set” of modern policing. Crisis Management needs to be woven seamlessly into day-to-day operations. This means that everyone needs to be trained and evaluated with respect to the best practices of Crisis Management.

The worst form of Crisis Management is reactive, that is, responding without any prior preparation or training. Law enforcement organizations including city, county, state and federal, must learn to practice proactive Crisis Management or things will only get worse. And, if proactive Crisis Management means anything, it’s that plans are not enough. One needs the capabilities to handle crises.

But most of all, good Crisis Management is not just responding well to crises once they’ve occurred. Good Crisis Management is doing everything humanly possible to prevent major crises from happening in the first place. Years of sincere, community based policing built linkages and partnerships can build prevention, proper response and effective containment of even the most difficult crises.