How America talks about police violence five years after Michael Brown
August 9 marks the fifth year since Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was killed in a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. In the years since that shooting, national awareness of the ways policing impacts communities of color has grown, but systemic change to policing remains a work in progress.
Brown’s death in 2014, which came less than a month after an NYPD officer used a chokehold on Eric Garner in New York City, was a flashpoint in a summer where video and eyewitness reports of police violence began to draw national attention. In Ferguson, the teen’s shooting sparked what is known as the Ferguson Uprising, a series of protests where residents — the majority of them black, many of them working-class or low-income — called attention to issues that had long been present in parts of the St. Louis suburb: poverty, inequality, and police violence.
As media outlets flocked to the city in August 2014, many focused on covering moments of looting and late-night clashes between civilians and armed police officers. But residents argued that their protest were about something much bigger: calling attention to the fact that Brown’s death was part of a larger systemic injustice they faced on a regular basis.
In November 2014, a grand jury announced that it would not charge Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, leading to more protests. Months later, a Justice Department investigation into the Ferguson Police Department found that the agency had repeatedly violated the constitutional rights of black citizens and had used fines and traffic tickets to generate money for the city, further supporting protesters’ arguments that they had been regularly exposed to unjust policing. Ferguson later entered a consent decree, a formal police reform agreement, with the department promising to enact reforms that would change how it treated local residents.
Years later, progress in Ferguson has been mixed. The city has seen a powerful social justice movement, and activists have pushed for the community to have a voice in both the consent decree process and other reforms. Wilson also no longer works for the Ferguson Police Department.
But there are still issues, and many of the racial disparities that existed before the shooting remain. Though traffic stops have decreased, black motorists in Ferguson continue to be stopped very disproportionally to their actual share of the local population. The poorest areas of Ferguson continue to struggle. The consent decree, which is supposed to change the police department, has not been implemented as quickly — or with as much community influence — as some residents hoped it would be.
In many ways, the story of how Ferguson has, and has not, changed in the past five years is similar to how the broader national debate about race and policing has fared. In the years since the Ferguson protests brought national attention to movements like Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, awareness of police violence has intensified, and cities have sought to show that they care about fighting police violence. Still, fatal police shootings are occurring, and they continue to disproportionately affect black and brown people.
It suggests that while the nation is more aware of black communities’ struggles with police violence, that awareness hasn’t yet translated to changing how policing is done.
Ferguson has taken some steps forward — particularly when it comes to local politics
In Ferguson, one result of the uprising was an outpouring of action from local activists and community members. Some of this work already existed before Brown’s death, but other groups and coalitions formed when local community members partnered with organizers to push for reforms in the wake of the shooting.
One such coalition, the Ferguson Collaborative, argued that Ferguson would only change if officials listened to the communities that had been most affected by economic struggles, disinvestment, and police violence.
“The Collaborative came out of a need and desire for Black people and working-class people in Ferguson to articulate, imagine, and begin to construct the type of policing that truly serves the interests of the people and protects the people, particularly those on the margins of society,” Christina Assefa, a Ferguson Collaborative member, explained in 2016.
The coalition, one of several groups that have remained active in Ferguson, has seen some success in representation in local politics, too. In April, Fran Griffin, a local organizer and Ferguson Collaborative member, won election to the Ferguson City Council, defeating the incumbent, Keith Kallstrom, as well as Lesley McSpadden, Brown’s mother.
This wasn’t the only change to Ferguson’s leadership. The city council, which had just one black council member in 2014, is now majority black. The Ferguson Police Department has greatly increased the number of black police officers and has also seen two black police chiefs in the past three years; the second, Jason Armstrong, began his tenure this summer. And in 2018, Wesley Bell, a reform-minded prosecutor who was active in the 2014 protests, was elected St. Louis County prosecutor, defeating the prosecutor who failed to get charges brought against Wilson.
But progress has been uneven — and, in some cases, nonexistent
Still, the demographic changes in the department and city leadership have not yet produced a systemic change in policing. Local residents continue to demand greater community oversight of the police. And when it comes to other reforms that have been sought by activists and desired by the community, the city still has much work to do.
Parts of Ferguson, particularly the West Florissant Avenue area where Brown was killed, continue to deal with limited economic opportunities, crime, a lack of jobs, and a need for more community resources (though the city has opened a community empowerment center and is also in the process of building a Boys and Girls Club). Several businesses closed in weeks and months after the shooting, and many residents who could leave Ferguson did so.
“Here we are five years later,” Joshura Davis, the president of the West Florissant Business Association, recently told the New York Times. “That there would be such a long tail on recovery, I wouldn’t have thought that. That’s what frustrates me.”
On policing, the issue that drew the most attention after the Brown shooting, there are also continued problems. In addition to the remaining racial disparities in traffic stops and tickets, local community members have criticized the pace of progress on the consent decree. In July, federal officials argued that the city needs to do more work to implement the consent decree, and an independent monitor tasked with observing the city’s progress argued that while the city had made progress in creating reform plans for the police department and the court system, it needed to finally begin implementing the policies it had proposed.
“More needs to be done,” Natasha Tidwell, the independent monitor overseeing the consent decree process, said in July. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tidwell noted that the police department “still needs to do a staffing study, implement community engagement and neighborhood policing plans, and collect data on police use of force and other police actions.”
Ferguson’s struggles are part of a larger national problem
In many ways, the issues seen in Ferguson, and the challenges the city continues to face years after Brown’s death, are not unique.
The past several years have seen high-profile police violence incidents in cities like Baltimore, Chicago, and Baton Rouge. These incidents, and others, spurred national attention to police violence and calls for police reform.
Years later, many of those calls have not been met.
For one, the number of fatal police shootings stands largely unchanged from when media outlets first began tracking the issue in 2015. Since then, the Washington Post has tracked police shootings annually and found that roughly 1,000 people have been killed in police shootings each year. So far in 2019, more than 540 people have been killed by police.
These fatal shootings continue to disproportionately affect black Americans, who make up 13 percent of the US population but account for roughly 25 percent of those killed in police shootings. A 2018 article in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health found that while roughly half of police shooting victims are white, young black Americans and Native Americans are disproportionately likely to be killed in a police shooting.
There’s also been limited success in prosecuting police officers for misconduct. It remains rare for officers to be charged and rarer still for them to be convicted, in part due to the wide latitude officers are given to use force.
In some ways, it seems like the momentum for police reform, at least at the national level, has faded. While policing received high-profile attention during the Obama administration, prompting work from groups like the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and the launching of DOJ investigations into some police departments, that attention has not continued into the Trump presidency.
Instead, the current administration has effectively halted federal momentum on policing reform. Under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Trump administration announced it would review old police reform agreements between the federal government and police departments and stop entering into new ones. The DOJ has also attempted to intervene in ongoing reform efforts in cities like Chicago and Baltimore, arguing that reform agreements would hamper the effectiveness and morale of police officers.
Recently, there have been signs that some politicians want to change this. While the 2020 Democratic primary has seen a limited discussion of policing, some candidates, like former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, are repeatedly discussing the issue in their campaigns; others, like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, have been directly asked to explain their records on police reform in the wake of recent controversies.
And on Friday, the fifth anniversary of Brown’s death, Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Lacy Clay (D-MO) introduced the PEACE Act, a bill that would only allow federal police officers to use force against a civilian as a last resort, requiring them to employ deescalation techniques first. The bill would also require that police departments receiving federal funding use the same standard. The measure is modeled after a use of force measure that was passed in California in July.
“Immediately resorting to lethal force rather than using proven de-escalation tactics increases risks for both citizens and police officers,” Khanna said in a statement announcing the congressional legislation. “We have to do more than change the rhetoric: we have to change the laws.”
For activists, the fact that police violence remains an issue has led to calls for the country to rethink its reliance on policing. Some groups have called for the increased use of mental health professionals and other alternatives to police. Others have called for the abolition of policing in its entirety.
One thing that is clear is that five years after Brown’s death, America still has not fully dealt with the issues that activists involved in the Ferguson Uprising, and those who protested other incidents of unconstitutional policing, wanted addressed. And to be fair, given the extent of the changes sought, five years may not be enough time for the full impact of the changes that have been adopted to be seen.
Still, as activists continue to call attention to the problems wrought by unequal policing in America, it is clear that reform will require persistence as well as the support and buy-in of communities, politicians, and, to some extent, police. The country is more aware of police violence. The question now is how much work America is willing to do to adopt the systemic changes needed to address it.