Reprint from The Huffington Post
FERGUSON, Mo. — The head of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services is planning to return to St. Louis in the next few weeks with the goal of helping to ease the tensions between police and black residents in the greater St. Louis area.
COPS Director Ronald Davis said in an interview with The Huffington Post this week that his office will offer training not only to police in the small town of Ferguson, where unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by a white officer earlier this month, but also to various other law enforcement agencies in the region.
“The community voice has been loud and clear, and I heard the same thing on the ground as far as the community having little to no trust in the police in general in that area. And in talking to the police leaders, I think there was an acknowledgement that that is the feeling of a section of the community,” Davis said. He explained that his office’s assistance would be “more long-term” and that it would address the “strained relationship between law enforcement and the community.”
The widely criticized militarized response by area police to both sporadic looting and nonviolent protests in Ferguson only seemed to widen the gulf. Mother Jones reported that an officer let his police dog urinate on the Brown memorial site. Seemingly peaceful protests were met with rubber bullets and tear gas. Police lobbed tear gas into residents’ backyards and trained guns on crowds. Even military veterans slammed the use of armored vehicles and snipers as inflammatory and over-the-top.
Davis said that his office had already connected law enforcement officials in Missouri with outside police chiefs experienced in managing protests and the fallout from shooting incidents that had exposed racism and divided communities. The idea was that these chiefs would be able to share approaches that had helped heal neighborhoods and open up lines of communication that had been long closed.
“The key to the COPS office involvement was the initial consultation and connecting them with experts in real time so they were given information to make better decisions,” Davis said.
But one of the officials recruited to consult on Ferguson, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who currently serves as president of both the Police Executive Research Forum and the Major Cities Chiefs Association, is known less for healing communities than for kicking up costly lawsuits over allegations of excessive force and false arrest against demonstrators and bystanders.
During his tenure running the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department in the late 1990s and through the mid-2000s, Ramsey faced off against anti-globalization and IMF-World Bank protests. Random mass arrests — through a technique known as “kettling” — and the pepper-spraying of demonstrators became the norm along with the now-familiar display of military-style hardware. In one infamous incident at Pershing Park in downtown D.C., Ramsey’s forces conducted a dragnet sweep of tourists and peaceful protesters. They were arrested and later hog-tied for hours until their release.
Lawsuits over the false arrests and police abuses cost the city tens of millions of dollars in civil suit settlements. Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which represented more than a thousand of the falsely arrested, said Ramsey is the last person you’d want to consult on Ferguson.
“How do you ask Chief Ramsey?” she said. “If as a police department you want to consult with someone whose idea of policing protests includes mass arrests, brutality, evisceration of civil rights, then Ramsey’s your man. That’s what we saw in D.C. That’s his legacy.”
Through a Philadelphia Police Department spokesperson, Ramsey refused to comment on what he had discussed with the Ferguson police.
Police officials who handled the fallout over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, were also solicited by COPS to assist Missouri police. Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith said he reached out to Ferguson’s police chief but has yet to hear back.
“I would imagine that he’s somewhat busy and that’s understandable,” Smith said.
Smith took over the Sanford police in the early spring of 2013 before the trial of Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman. He said that a vigil was recently held in Sanford for Michael Brown. His department provided water and chairs.
If Smith could reach Ferguson’s cops, he knows what advice he’d give. “The biggest thing is you listen to the concerns of the community, you be upfront, be transparent, be willing to in some cases humble yourself,” he said. “Accept change and be part of the change and lead the change if need be.”
Newport News, Virginia, Chief Richard Myers, who became Sanford’s interim chief two months after Martin’s February 2012 death, told HuffPost that he had one 40-minute call with the Missouri State Highway Patrol. The state police he said were going into Ferguson with no prior relationship to the African-American community there and were struggling on what to do. “They recognized that nothing is going to get better without an open dialogue,” he said. “They were figuring out how we want to start. They were definitely in the we-want-to-do-the-right-thing mode.”
Myers said they discussed specific strategies with the “priority being community engagement, getting people involved, reassuring the community.”
The problem, he said, is that the situation had already strayed so far from that do-the-right-thing mode with the aggressive response to the demonstrations. “In 37 years in policing, I had never, never seen what appeared to be a SWAT team deployed to interact with a large crowd of protesters,” Myers said. “I had never seen a sniper on top of an armored vehicle aiming a rifle at a crowd like that.”
So far at least, the healing message hasn’t caught on with everybody. The tactics of police came under major criticism when St. Louis County Police were in charge of crowd control, but Chief Jon Belmar defended their approach during a press conference this week. He argued that all the military firepower was critical “because we patrol very urban areas.”