They’ve lined the streets with police in riot gear, brought in a new black commander with an empathetic manner, imposed a curfew, lifted it and deployed the National Guard – and still the violence erupts nightly in the town of Ferguson, Missouri.
After more than a week of unrest after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, law enforcement and political leaders are left struggling for answers to a frustrating question: What can we do to restore peace to the community?
“It’s the question of the week, the month and the year: How do you bring this to a conclusion?” asked Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police officer and criminal justice professor at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.
One answer, Nolan said, rests with police, who should take the initiative to meet with nonviolent protesters, pledge to scale back some of the more military-style methods of crowd control, such as sound cannons, and increase the recruitment of black police officers – something the city said it plans to address. Only three members of Ferguson’s 53-person force are black, even though about two-thirds of the residents are black.
“If the police keep showing up every night in force with a military presence, these protesters are going to keep showing up,” Nolan said. “Something has got to give. ... Police are trained not to back down. I think they need to reimagine this and realize their responsibility ultimately is public safety and not to save face. If it takes making some concessions and meeting people they’re not enthusiastic about meeting with – that’s what needs to be done. If not, who can say how long this goes on?”
On Tuesday, Ferguson officials released a statement, saying they plan to “learn from this tragedy” and vowed to take steps that could increase the number of black applicants to the police department and offer incentives to encourage city residency for police officers.
The statement also urged residents to remain home at night Tuesday to “allow peace to settle in,” following Monday’s street demonstrations that once again turned violent. The trouble began after dark when some protesters resisted police orders to disperse.
Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, who is overseeing security in Ferguson, said Molotov cocktails and bottles were thrown from the crowd and some officers came under heavy gunfire. Two fires also were set.
“These are not acts of protesters but acts of violent criminals,” Johnson said at a news briefing where he also announced two people had been shot. Police fired tear gas, threw flash grenades and deployed ultra-loud sound cannons to repel the crowds.
It was the first night the National Guard was on the scene, though soldiers kept their distance from the streets. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who lifted the midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew he’d imposed two days earlier, deployed the Guard for a “limited mission” to restore calm. Ferguson’s violence, looting and vandalism have been sparked by the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Brown by a white police officer.
Johnson also noted in his briefing that some of those arrested have come from out of state and said agitators intent on creating havoc are hiding among the crowds of peaceful demonstrators.
Police reported 57 arrests Monday night and Tuesday morning. Just four of those arrested live in Ferguson. More than a quarter of those arrested are from out of state, including Washington, D.C., Brooklyn, New York, Austin, Texas, San Diego and Chicago, according to a St. Louis County spokeswoman.
Dominique Adams, 30, who lives in an apartment complex near where Brown was shot, said she doesn’t recognize many people she sees at the demonstrations. “I believe that the trouble is not caused by a lot of people who live here,” she said. It’s the outsiders, she said, who are causing the problems that force police to use tear gas. “They [the outsiders] are messing up my neighborhood,” she added.
That situation just adds to law enforcement’s troubles, said Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“It’s exquisitely complicated in the sense that you have people there who are legitimately protesting,” he said. “You may have people there intending to do civil disobedience, break the law and accept the consequences. And you may have people there who just want to go head-to-head with the police.”
It’s that third group, he said, “that can very well hold the cards. It’s a democratic country. You have people bent on violence coming [to Ferguson] for seven seconds of cable TV glory. Unless you use repressive tactics, they may have the upper hand.”
O’Donnell also said while it’s “almost impossible” for police to strike the right balance, it’s important for law enforcement to work with the community to end the continuing crisis.
“The secret to success in this – it’s almost now a cliche – is ... if the community can assert ownership of the town, it will do more than any amount of weaponry and sophisticated tactics,” he said. If Ferguson makes it clear militant protesters engaging in violence “are not welcome, it will go a long way ... toward where they need to go,’” O’Donnell added.
Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, agrees.
“What will carry at the end of the day is mending relations between the police and the public,” he said. “How that occurs in the light of everything that’s gone on – I don’t have an answer to that. I don’t know how to get there. ... Until that fence-building occurs, they run the risk of these things occurring.”
“I wish I had a pill to make this go away,” Novak added. “I’m sure hundreds of people feel the same way.”