WASHINGTON, August 19, 2014 — The fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., has become a focal point for both community outrage and the civil liberties movement. The reluctance of Ferguson police to engage the public in a transparent, sensitive manner, coupled with the very aggressive police interventions during ongoing protests as they investigate the killing of the black 18-year-old is only adding fuel to the fire.
Looking at the troubled relationship of Ukraine with Russia, as well as the contentious relationship of Russia with the West, and the violent relationship of the Palestinians with the Israelis, as well the uneasy relationship of Israel with the Muslim world, the unhealthy dynamics surrounding the Ferguson shooting are shared by many conflicts around the world that periodically escalate into violent outbursts.
People expect the police to protect them from threats, but we also need to believe that the police are not a threat themselves; otherwise, they are just armed gangs in the eyes of those who feel marginalized. For a police department to fulfill these two requirements and earn the cooperation of a population, they need to have a working relationship built on mutual trust and respect.
The police must show respect for the people living in the communities they serve. They must build trust by reaching out to those who do not see the police as a constructive part of their community and lives. Seeing the police run a red light at an empty intersection or arrogantly harass known criminals instead of trying to re-socialize them breeds distrust and a lack of credibility that undermines the ability of the police to effectively protect the people they serve.
The failure to serve sets the police above the community, making them our masters, not our protectors. The police will seem to act as they please, immune from normal restraints, able to apply brute force against citizens who would be punished for defending themselves from the far more powerful police.
One of the many questions raised by the Ferguson shooting has been the lack of black police officers on the local police force, even after efforts to recruit blacks into law enforcement. Clearly, blacks in the community consider the police to be their enemy. Police officers profile them, treating blacks with a presumption of guilt. This perception is reinforced by statistics showing the disparity in the treatment of blacks by the American justice system.
Although recruiting more blacks into the police force could help dispel this perception on the local level and curb potential racist behavior by white officers, the driving force behind the problem is actually the failure of the police to build a proper relationship with black members of the community.
Building on the lack of trust and community outreach, the militarization of police forces throughout America following the September 11 terrorist attacks has helped transform the police officer from a public servant and valued member of the community into a threatening storm trooper ready for combat. Armor can be a wall when it comes to engaging members of community. The use of riot gear and armored vehicles — repurposed military equipment — is a necessary safety precaution in certain situations, but the militarization of a police force also involves a shift in thinking.
Just as a person with a gun is more likely to use that weapon — having the gun makes the individual more likely to view a situation as threatening enough to justify using it — heavily armed police can only be expected to view potential threats as even more serious than they are. Where innate racial perceptions drive the mistreatment of blacks by the police, the militarization of the police creates a situation where innocent blacks are more likely to be viewed as threats and become the victims of the police.
Looking at situations like the Ukraine Crisis, the ongoing Hamas-Israeli war, and the Islamic State-Shiite conflict in Iraq, the Ferguson shooting brings home to Americans how easily violence can escalate.
In all these situations, there is at least, one weaker party that feels victimized by a stronger party whose actions to address their own interests threaten the weaker party. The Ukrainians, Palestinians, and Sunnis feel as though they are victims of stronger enemies, just as blacks often feel disenfranchised by whites.
In turn, Russia, Israel, and the Shiite majority of Iraq react in heavy-handed ways, because they feel threatened just as the police often feel threatened by the violence of the communities they serve. In turn, the West, the Muslim world, and Iraqi security forces, as even more powerful outside entities like the Missouri Gubernatorial Administration and the Obama Administration, recognize the inappropriate overreaction of these insecure parties and chastise their extreme behavior, which sometimes leads to their own heavy-handed responses.
The driving force behind this type of escalating dynamic is the lack of working relationships that could turn perceived threats, rooted in insecurities, into allies against real threats. Building healthy relationships, as all security forces need to do, is a means of addressing security interests without creating additional threats by leaving weaker groups feeling vulnerable.