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Quelling the unrest in Ferguson

Ferguson, Missouri

The shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in the town of Fer­guson, Mis­souri, on Aug. 9 has sparked a spate of vio­lence in the St. Louis suburb. We asked Gor­dana Rabren­ovic, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of soci­ology and the director of Northeastern’s Brud­nick Center on Vio­lence and Con­flict, to explain how pro­tes­tors and law enforce­ment offi­cials could work together to quell the unrest.

In a news conference this week, President Obama called for peace in Ferguson, saying, “As Americans, we’ve got to use this moment to seek out our shared humanity that’s been laid bare by this moment.” What are some steps protestors and law enforcement officials can take to promote cooperation and understanding between each other—or is it too late to reconcile their differences?

In order to rebuild trust between the community and the police, the political leaders, the community members, and the representatives of the local government need to critically examine the excessive use of force by police in Ferguson. They need to look at formal police procedures and the actual outcomes of encounters in the community. In addition, the more general question of how to better monitor police use of force in the community must be addressed. A key step for development of better relations and trust between the police and community is to make the police decision-making process transparent to the community. Over the longer term, Ferguson needs to address the racial and ethnic makeup of the police force, and the community must be informed and included in this process.

Law enforcement authorities have tried several tactics to quell the violence in Ferguson, among them taking to the streets in riot gear, turning over their power to a State Highway Patrol official, and then calling for —and later lifting—a curfew. At this point, what is the best strategy for police to use in response to the protests?

Law enforcement authorities need to work with the community to find the solution to current situation. City officials, community leaders, the police department, and respected leaders from outside Ferguson must come together and demand that a full and transparent review of the incident is conducted. Equally important, however, respected leaders also need to call for and establish a review committee chartered to examine the causes of the incident and ongoing issues with policing in Ferguson. The committee should be empowered to make recommendations on solutions on these problems and monitor their implementation.

According to a recent report in Mother Jones, Brown is one of at least four unarmed black men who have died at the hands of police in the past month alone. Why has this case sparked such visceral anger while others like it rarely provoke such unrest?

The specifics of why a given situation sparks visceral anger when other similar instances do not are often difficult to assess. However, it is probably the case that the incident in Ferguson appeared particularly unfair to the community and also tapped into ongoing and growing feelings of unjust or unfair treatment by at least some police officers in Ferguson. The failure of the police department to communicate with the community also aggravated the situation and further increased community anger.

– By Jason Kornwitz

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