Last night, after a call for assistance by a Ferguson officer, an armed subject was confronted by officers from St. Louis County Police and the North County Police Cooperative, one of whom shot him dead. This much appears to be undisputed. Beyond that, though, and we must confront the details, and the preferences of the community in which this happened. In doing so, there are a few important points to keep in mind:
- Transparency brings trust. Because of the numerous instances of police departments concealing misconduct, there are many who are ready to believe the worst in every instance. Prompt transparency is the most effective antidote. The agencies involved – and we recognize that this is not entirely under the control of the Ferguson PD – should immediately release a complete timeline and body camera video. If other agencies refuse to do so, Ferguson should – we are the department that will bear the brunt of the suspicion, and the community in which the protests will take place.
- Boundaries bind communities. A community is more than a bunch of people who happen to live in the same general area. The glue which binds us into a community is the things we do, and refrain from doing, to each other. If you see me fall in my driveway, you help me. I don’t park my car on your lawn, or poison your pets. And in any functioning community, you don’t engage in unprovoked menacing with a deadly weapon.
- Police have a community purpose. A good police force exists to undergird the community by upholding its most important principles, which are defined by our laws – no more, no less. When a police force serves other purposes, such as raising revenue or carrying out grudges or prejudice, it is not a good force. And when a police force endangers the community by failing to uphold the law, it is also not good.
I recognize that some in our community believe that force is never justified, and that police ought not exist. We don’t live in a Quaker community, and I’m confident that most would disagree with such views. There are others who, based upon history and personal experience, are suspicious of the carefully phrased official accounts which are released following these incidents. Their suspicions are not unfounded, and it is the responsibility of authorities to provide verifiable proof of their statements, and to do so promptly.
Let’s be perfectly clear what is at stake here. Of course, the credibility of government is bolstered by transparency and truth. But more immediately, the possibility of disruptive protests will exist so long as the community is asked to believe a vague and uncorroborated story. We would hate for Ferguson to be the next #Ferguson. So release everything. Release the timeline, the body camera video, and recordings of police radio traffic. Release everything which is in Ferguson’s control. Don’t hide behind lawyers and investigations. Do it now.
A community which has no check on the behavior of its most troublesome citizens will quickly become uninhabitable. Nobody chooses to live in a place where motorists tear through neighborhoods at highway speed, where yards are piled with garbage, or where unwell people menace neighbors with weapons. We employ government to prevent such things, and grant them the power to do violence in extraordinary circumstances. When that power is used in its most extreme form, as it was last night, residents have the right to verify the propriety of that exercise of power. Those to whom that power is entrusted have a responsibility to cooperate in that verification. If we fail to do that, our community will become uninhabitable for other reasons.