Tensions are at a boiling point in Ferguson, Missouri. Police are rightly concerned about their safety and about maintaining law and order. There is plenty to suggest that law-enforcement tactics escalated problems, rather than solved them, in the wake of the shooting of a black teenager. But there is much to suggest that the situation has been exacerbated by the demands of unruly mobs, as well.
All the while, discussions around the country focus on the perception that police departments are becoming increasingly militarized, blurring the lines between local law enforcement and the military. President Obama addressed this Tuesday, saying those lines should never cross, and yet the Pentagon has been selling surplus military equipment to local police departments.
Ferguson may bring some of these issues to a head. But mob rule cannot be allowed to supplant justice.
Contrast Ferguson with South Salt Lake, where an officer last week shot and killed a young man in the parking lot of a convenience store. The officer himself is a member of a racial minority, Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank said Tuesday on the "Doug Wright Show" on KSL. But that officer’s name has not been revealed, nor has a police video of the entire incident.
A small protest took place in Salt Lake City on Monday. It was nothing near what has been occurring daily in Ferguson. It’s unfair to make that comparison, however, considering the racial makeup and history of tension in Ferguson, which is considerably different than that of Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake. And yet the official reaction in Utah seems far better than Ferguson’s as far as fairness and justice are concerned.
Burbank said the officer’s name and the video will be made public eventually. But as he noted on KSL, the incident is part of an ongoing investigation, and in no other situation would evidence be released to the public while witnesses still are being interviewed and facts gathered.
In addition, the privacy of the officer involved and the safety of his family need to be taken into consideration, especially while tensions are high.
In Ferguson, the officer’s name was released under pressure from critics. The results of an autopsy on the victim were released, as well, with the disturbing conclusion that the suspect was shot multiple times. Evidence seems to be running ahead of judicial processes.
There are indications, as well, that police in Ferguson inflamed the situation by donning riot gear, imposing curfews and releasing video of the suspect committing an unrelated robbery. Burbank said the use of helmets and riot gear seems like an invitation for people to throw bottles and other objects.
It does more than that, however. It dehumanizes the officers, making them all look alike and hiding their facial features. It reinforces the notion that police are at war with the public rather than that they exist to protect people.
There are lawbreakers among the protesters, but such criminals tend to look for opportunities, and the chaos that results from an out-of-control situation gives them what they desire.
Burbank said he has declined to buy any surplus military equipment, and he has his officers approach most situations dressed in regular uniforms. His efforts to diffuse some tense confrontations have won him praise nationally.
And yet we must acknowledge that police officers face difficult and dangerous situations that sometimes demand force. They face decisions daily that demand the best training available.
At the moment, there are no clear answers in either case. Above all, justice takes time and it takes care. That is something that should not be forgotten in Utah or in Missouri.