Unlimited Access. Try it Today! Your First 10 Days Always $0.99
News Opinion Editorial

Baltimore's moment of silence [Editorial]

This week, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ordered state troopers to take over responsibility for maintaining order in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, following several days of unrest sparked by the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a local police officer. Mr. Nixon waited far too long to bring in the state Highway Patrol to calm the situation, but he was absolutely correct in his judgment that local authorities weren't up to the job and were actually making matters worse. Had police there exhibited the restraint shown by Baltimore officers on Thursday, when a peaceful crowd rallied near City Hall to support Ferguson's residents with a moment of silence, it's likely things never would have got to a point where the governor had to intervene.

The Aug. 9 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown under circumstances that remain unclear prompted hundreds of Ferguson residents to take to the streets in protests that drew international attention. There they were met by a massive local police presence whose heavy-handed tactics only seemed to inflame the situation. Despite some reports of looting by demonstrators, the protests remained mostly peaceful, yet the aggressive behavior of the police seemed almost intended to stir up the crisis atmosphere and provoke violence.

By contrast, Baltimore's demonstrations were a model of peaceful protest. Instead of appearing in riot gear and armored vehicles, city officers made no attempt to disperse the crowd and limited themselves to directing traffic and clearing a path for demonstrators through the heavily traveled downtown. They didn't point assault rifles at participants or fire tear canisters and rubber bullets. Most importantly they didn't do anything to deter anyone from exercising their right to peaceful assembly for the purpose of seeking a redress for grievances. They were clearly there to protect the demonstrators, not to suppress them.

Thursday's protest probably couldn't have happened the way they did in the era before social media. What began as a small march by a few dozen demonstrators grew to a crowd of several hundred as news of the gathering flashed on Twitter and Facebook. Nor was the event confined to just Baltimore. Nearly 100 cities across the country witnessed demonstrations of solidarity with the Ferguson protests, with virtually no serious violence reported. Social media were the organizing force that allowed thousands of people nationwide to express their outrage over the excessive use of force by police in Ferguson.

The events there have sparked a passionate discussion over the militarization of American police departments, which have received billions of dollars worth of surplus vehicles, weapons and other equipment from the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security since the late 1990s. It's becoming apparent that we're paying a price for that policy. What started out as an effort to equip police with materiel they might need to protect citizens from a terrorist attack has turned them into an occupying force in the communities they serve. Paradoxically, police forces have begun to behave more like military organizations at the same time our armed forces abroad increasingly are being called on to function as police.

But if people see themselves as victims of a hostile military presence, rather than as citizens who enjoy the police's protection, they will soon cease to trust or respect the police. That is what happened in Ferguson, and it's a problem shared by too many other communities of color across the country. We need to get back to the idea of community policing, in which police departments work with the communities they serve to solve crimes and where residents trust officers enough to cooperate in investigations. In places like Ferguson, where there is a radical mismatch between the demographics of the population and the police, that challenge is all the greater.

The vast majority of police work never involves the need for armored vehicles, SWAT teams, rubber bullets or tear gas. Yet too often, as in Ferguson, that has become the first response of police to any disturbance or volatile situation. Officers think they need to dominate rather than simply maintain order. The police in Ferguson apparently thought their job was to control every aspect of the demonstrations there by bullying and intimidating residents. But in acting on that belief they only showed how out of control they themselves were. Fortunately, police in Baltimore and elsewhere were wise enough not to make the same mistake.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Most police officers serve honorably
    Most police officers serve honorably

    Several decades ago, Baltimore City Police went on strike as a last resort over a contract dispute. Immediately, hoodlums swung into action looting businesses and terrorizing citizens living in the inner city. I personally witnessed the criminal activities as I covered the streets in my role as...

  • The lessons of Ferguson
    The lessons of Ferguson

    The Justice Department on Wednesday released a devastating critique of police and city officials in Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed black teenager was fatally shot by an officer last year. Though the department did not find cause to bring a civil rights indictment against the officer who killed...

  • 'Everyone's a little bit racist'
    'Everyone's a little bit racist'

    F.B.I Director James Comey did the nation a huge favor last week when he publicly acknowledged that too many police officers allow unconscious racial biases to influence their conduct toward young black men. That is a reality residents of the nation's African-Americans communities have known...

  • Why we honor MLK
    Why we honor MLK

    It's been half a century since hundreds of marchers, determined to secure southern blacks' right to vote, set off across the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, Ala., on their way to the state capitol in Montgomery. The demonstrators intended to present their grievances to the state legislature...

  • If black lives matter, why are so many black men killing each other?
    If black lives matter, why are so many black men killing each other?

    Letter writer Sherri Alms suggests that "black lives matter," and I agree ("Why I join in proclaiming #BlackLivesMatter," Jan. 13).

  • All lives should matter
    All lives should matter

    A shadow of ignorance and hate has darkened us all. We raise our voices in anguish and protest at the French "Charlie" outrage as we briskly walk past the hungry beggar in the street, neglect a family member who has fallen on hard times, look away from the youth whose pants aren't hitched up as...

  • Restoring police training program could restore faith in police
    Restoring police training program could restore faith in police

    On the 18th of December, President Barack Obama signed an executive order creating the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The Task Force will work closely with the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office, a Clinton era program that provided hiring grants,...

  • A time to come together
    A time to come together

    This letter is to thank the Baltimore Sun for voicing your view that the assassination of two New York police officers is a time for bringing us together ("Tragedy in New York," Dec. 23).

Comments
Loading