Riots and looting after police shot and killed an unarmed teenager near St. Louis are adding to mounting tension over law-enforcement tactics even as crime rates fall in America’s largest cities.
The death of Michael Brown, 18, while walking near his grandmother’s home in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 9 follows police killings from Miami to Albuquerque, New Mexico. In New York last month, Eric Garner, 43, died after officers used an apparent chokehold while questioning him about selling illegal cigarettes. Last week in Beavercreek, Ohio, officers shot a 22-year-old man carrying a toy gun.
The events raise questions about the use of force and abuse of civil rights. The face-off between hundreds of residents in Ferguson and police in riot gear also highlights the friction that exists between law enforcement and blacks nationwide, said Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York police officer who teaches law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“The minority community is on heightened alert because they believe, rightfully, when it comes to law enforcement, that the brunt of it takes place in poor and minority communities,” he said. “They’re going to say at the end of the day, ‘Why is it that people of color disproportionately end up on the ground, dead?’”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation yesterday opened an investigation into the Brown shooting, with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder calling for a “fulsome review.” The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called a public meeting in St. Louis, while civil rights leaders began casting Brown’s death against the backdrop of other police shootings.
“The death of yet another African-American at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve the community where he lived is heartbreaking,” Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP, said in a statement. “Michael Brown was preparing to begin college, and now his family is preparing to bury their child -- his life cut short in a tragic encounter with the police.”
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said Brown physically assaulted a police officer before the youth was shot multiple times. Belmar didn’t name the officer, who was placed on paid administrative leave.
Witnesses in Ferguson, a predominantly black town of about 21,000, told local media outlets that Brown was shot while raising his hands in surrender. Protests ensued at the site of the shooting, and looters raided nearby stores at night.
Posts on social media showed images of protesters waving signs outside the police station as officers in protective gear stood by.
“My hand’s up! Don’t shoot,” protesters shouted yesterday.
Brown’s death and the reaction to it followed a pattern that has become familiar in the age of social media and so-called broken-windows policing, which emphasizes cracking down on relatively minor offenses such as loitering to deter major crimes.
An officer saw Brown about 12 p.m., walking on the street with another person, Belmar told reporters Aug. 10. Police said Brown attempted to get the officer’s gun. The officer fired multiple shots, killing Brown.
Residents and politicians from the area posted pictures and videos on social media sites and the local unrest over the shooting drew national attention.
“Aggressively pursuing investigations such as this is critical for preserving trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” Holder said yesterday in a statement.
The Justice Department opened an investigation into the March shooting of a homeless man by Albuquerque police after that event sparked protests. The department’s civil rights division said in an April report that Albuquerque police regularly used lethal force even when they weren’t in danger of serious injury. Similar flaws were found in Miami, where seven black men were shot to death by police in eight months in 2010 and 2011.
The FBI has also opened investigations into the killings of a 13-year-old boy carrying a pellet gun in Santa Rosa, California, and an unarmed 25-year-old man in Anaheim, California, both shot to death by police.
The shooting of Brown in Missouri drew parallels to the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old who was confronted as he walked near his home and was shot to death in 2012 by a Sanford, Florida, neighborhood watch volunteer. The shooter, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of second-degree murder after a nationally televised trial last year.
The rash of cases has increased distrust of the police among blacks, O’Donnell said.
“I have a lot of people who tell me all the time they see the police and they’re scared,” he said.
Still, O’Donnell said, minority communities want the police around to maintain law and order.
While “police brutality cases get all the attention,” crime is actually declining, he said. The violent crime rate in the U.S. is about half of what it was in 1993, according to FBI statistics.
Cases of alleged police misconduct may seem more prevalent today because of the ubiquity of smartphones and social media, said Frankie Bailey, who teaches at the School of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Albany.
“As you saw with Trayvon Martin, you have a case where people weren’t too aware of it but people were out there pushing it on social media and bringing it to other people’s attention,” she said. “Before you know it, it becomes viral.”
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