CNN’s split screen said it all Monday night.
On the left, the nation’s first African American president, pleading for calm following the decision by a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., not to indict officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.
On the right, police tear gas canisters soaring into crowds of angry protesters as Ferguson spiraled into another night of nationally televised chaos.
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The grand jury’s action won’t be the last word on the Brown case. There remains a federal investigation, and Brown’s parents likely will file a civil lawsuit.
After all that is done, Ferguson and the nation will still need to confront the underlying problems that have seared this case into the public’s conscience. That means asking hard questions about poverty, social mobility and fairness in this country. How do we reconnect the people CNN showed looting a Ferguson liquor store to the hope Barack Obama once embodied?
But most immediately, we must deal with the distrust between police and minority communities. African-Americans have long said, and studies have long confirmed, that they receive disparate treatment in the justice system for matters as simple as traffic stops or as grave as capital punishment. As Obama said Monday, “communities of color aren’t just making these problems up.”
Blacks simply do not believe that, under the exact same circumstances, a white Michael Brown would have been killed. That’s why Monday’s verdict touched off protests around the country, including in Charlotte, where we have our own troubled legacy of white police officers shooting blacks.
In the most recent case, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick shot former college football player Jonathan Ferrell 10 times as he approached police officers in a northeast Mecklenburg neighborhood one night in 2013.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police charged Kerrick with voluntary manslaughter. They did so after watching dash-cam video from the scene. And, presumably, after talking to the two African-American officers on the scene with Kerrick that night, neither of whom pulled their guns.
Some have praised Police Chief Rodney Monroe’s action. But what if there had been no video? Kerrick’s word alone would not have been good enough to convince African Americans that he did the right thing.
And it is that crisis of confidence that must be addressed. Body cameras for officers seem a good and necessary first step. Monroe calls them effective tools for protecting the rights of both citizens and officers. A Justice Department study of 63 police departments using them said such cameras could potentially “promote the perceived legitimacy and sense of procedural justice.”
Charlotte’s City Council has approved using asset forfeiture money to purchase about 160 cameras, but as many as 1,800 more are needed. Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes says the biggest – and still unknown – expense is the necessary computer storage space for all that video.
City staff is studying the issue. With Ferguson smoldering and trust in police faltering, it seems a path well worth pursuing.