FERGUSON — In 2015, The Washington Post launched a daunting project: to catalog every fatal police shooting of a civilian in the United States. The undertaking, unmatched even by federal crime statisticians at the time, was in direct response to the continuing furor over the police shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson the previous August, and the national police-reform movement it spawned.
By the end of 2015, the newspaper reported, there had been 994 police killings of civilians nationwide that year. The count continued through the next three years, as attention on the issue grew and reforms were adopted in Missouri and around America: body cameras, new police training methods, demilitarization of weapons and tactics, court reforms.
After all that, last year’s count was 992 dead civilians — two fewer than in the first year of the project. This year, it’s on roughly the same track. About 23% of those shot since 2015 have been black, although black Americans constitute only 13% of the population.
If reducing the number of young men’s deaths was the only metric for determining what progress Ferguson’s eruption has spurred in America in the past five years, it would seem that progress has been nil.
But other metrics also matter. The Aug. 9, 2014, killing of Brown by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, the subsequent grand jury decision not to indict Wilson, and the rage-filled nights of protests, injuries and arrests that followed have fundamentally changed America in the half-decade since, in real ways. Those include:
• Exposing widespread, monetized abuse of poor minorities by entire local criminal justice systems.
• Transforming cellphone-wielding civilian bystanders of police conflict into conveyors of news.
• Changing the way the federal government interacts with local police officials, on issues as disparate as availability of surplus military equipment to methods of gathering crime data.
• Spurring a vigorous debate from police union halls to the halls of academia over whether police aggression deters or aggravates violence.
Most of all, Ferguson took what had long been a hidden reality of life for black Americans — of having to teach their driving-age children “how to nonthreateningly reach for his or her license and registration so that he or she will not be killed,” as writer Michael Harriot put it — and pushed it plainly in view of the rest of the nation.
“Ferguson … was an SOS from black America to the world,” wrote Harriot, Alabama-based columnist for the African American site The Root. “It was a temper tantrum and a plea for help that forced this country to notice and address police brutality.”
It’s ironic that, amid the string of police killings of young black men that roiled and divided America during the Obama years, it was Ferguson that most defines this chapter in the nation’s story.
Ferguson wasn’t the first such event to seize national attention in that period. That would be the killing of Florida’s 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a civilian, essentially for wearing a hoodie.
Michael Brown wasn’t the most sympathetic of the victims. That distinction might go to Eric Garner, whose fatal headlock at the hands of New York police was caught on video for the world to watch — “I can’t breathe,” he rasped, over and over — during a confrontation over a minor infraction. Or perhaps 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, shot 16 times on a Chicago street, armed with a 3-inch knife and stumbling aimlessly in a drugged stupor but, as video of his death clearly showed, making no move toward the surrounding police. Or 12-year-old Tamir Rice, killed in Cleveland while holding a toy gun.
Contrary to what many seem to believe, Ferguson wasn’t even the event that inspired the founding of Black Lives Matter. That, again, was Trayvon Martin — though Ferguson took it from a mostly unknown project by activists and made it one of the nation’s most prominent sociopolitical movements.
Why Michael Brown?
“What was different about Michael Brown?” Slate essayist Jamelle Bouie asked a year after Brown’s death. “Why was he the catalyst for protest and conversation, as millions of Americans began talking about race, racism, and policing in ways we haven’t seen since Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991?”
The question is no easier to answer today. But a big part of it clearly is social media, which had a coming-of-age moment in Ferguson. It began on the very day of the shooting, when Brown’s partly covered body lay on the street for four hours after his death, clearly visible to members of the community who gathered in the area, steeped in anger and holding cellphones.
Police said the angry, growing crowd, accompanied by random gunshots in the area, was the reason they couldn’t more quickly remove Brown’s body. But residents who’d long lived within the racial tinderbox of a majority-black community patrolled by a mostly white police force saw something else: It “sent the message from law enforcement that ‘we can do this to you any day, any time, in broad daylight, and there’s nothing you can do about it,’” then-Ferguson Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Bynes said at the time.
What might have remained a local controversy had it happened 10 years earlier instead became, within hours, a global outrage, with Twitter, Facebook and the rest providing the world with a direct window over the dead teenager sprawled on Canfield Drive.
“I JUST SAW SOMEONE DIE …,” tweeted @TheePharoah, a self-described St. Louis rapper whose message would soon appear in mainstream media outlets around the world.
“The events of Ferguson were definitely a turning point for how social media is used to tell these stories,” said Antonio French, then a St. Louis alderman who became nationally prominent early in the Ferguson protests for his on-the-ground social-media reporting. “It showed activists they can go around traditional media and go directly to the people. It showed them how to amplify those stories.”
A 2016 study of social media’s impact on civil strife, by Deen Freelon, then an American University assistant communications professor, and others, noted that during Ferguson, mainstream media organizations relied heavily on tweeters and bloggers for information, a reversal of earlier dynamics. The report — titled, “Beyond the Hashtags: #Ferguson, #Blacklivesmatter, and the Online Struggle for Offline Justice” — calls Ferguson “perhaps the most critical contemporary moment in the progression of police brutality from minor issue to national priority.”
While social media has helped keep attention on the issue through subsequent police-related deaths, French said, the fact that those kinds of deaths have continued apace remains disappointing. “I don’t think we’ve made nearly as much progress as we’d hoped five years ago.”
‘Everyone knows Ferguson’
Early missteps by activists and the media muddled the story for a time, giving ammunition to those looking for ways to minimize the reality of systemic police brutality of African Americans. One was the widely disseminated but ultimately discredited claim that Brown had his hands raised in surrender when he was shot. It made for a powerful slogan — “Hands up, don’t shoot!” — and even provided the basis of a New Yorker cover. But President Barack Obama’s Justice Department ultimately determined it didn’t happen that way.
The Post-Dispatch published an article on Brown shortly after his death that referred to him as a “gentle giant” — a good-faith reflection of the information available at the time, which was coming largely from Brown’s relatives and people in the community. But that assessment, too, was challenged by the subsequent release by Ferguson police of a security video showing the 6-foot-4-inch, almost-300-pound teen apparently stealing cigars from a convenience store and violently shoving the clerk who tried to stop him. It was challenged further by the eventual Justice Department conclusion that Brown was charging at Wilson when he died.
But the biggest national echoes of Ferguson were less about the details of Brown’s death than about the atmosphere in which it happened. The same Obama Justice Department that concluded Officer Wilson’s actions were more justified than they initially appeared also concluded, in a scathing March 2015 report, that the city’s municipal court system was essentially a money trap designed to milk poor black defendants through targeted traffic stops and self-perpetuating fines.
Many Ferguson police officers saw “some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue,” stated the federal report, which presaged a Justice Department lawsuit to enforce reforms. The local court system, it said, used “its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests,” which imposed “unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American individuals.”
On that issue as on so many others, it turned out Ferguson wasn’t alone. Other municipal court systems across St. Louis and around the nation were subsequently exposed as running the same kinds of predatory schemes against the poorest of their own citizens.
“After the uprising in Ferguson, it became clear to everyone that this way of filling city coffers wasn’t just a Ferguson problem,” University of California, Berkeley law lecturer Brandon Greene, proponent of a California bill to address the same kinds of municipal court abuses there, said recently. “It was a national issue.”
In Missouri, reforms have included capping municipal court revenue and more court oversight.
Ferguson has also become the center of the academic universe for sociologists and criminologists.
“Everyone knows Ferguson. The word is almost synonymous” with police-reform issues, said sociologist David C. Pyrooz of the University of Colorado Boulder, who has extensively studied how Ferguson and similar events have affected crime and law-enforcement trends. “Members of the general public I don’t think fully grasped what the issues were. Ferguson helped galvanize that movement.”
Among the negative effects of that movement, he said, is a notable drop in police recruitment numbers around the country. “Fewer people want to become police officers. They don’t want to be under that kind of scrutiny.”
Scott Wolfe, associate professor at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, who has worked with Pyrooz and others on the issue, said it also has deepened the wedge between police and the public in some cases.
“Officers’ view toward their jobs have changed. The police are looking at citizens in different ways,” said Wolfe. “They view their jobs as more dangerous. They feel that citizens are more likely to question their authority.”
The upside, he said, is that many police agencies have recognized these trends, and are starting to focus on social engagement and nonconfrontational policing methods in their training.
“When you expose officers repeatedly to social-interaction training … they may be less likely to use force as a first resort” when dealing with the public, said Wolfe. “Long term, that could have a huge impact on both officer safety and citizen safety.”
One lesson learned
The Trump administration, however, isn’t promoting those changes, and has de-emphasized the police reform movement that the previous administration embraced. President Donald Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, once called Ferguson “an emblem of the tense relationship between law enforcement and the communities we serve, especially our minority communities.” But he also lamented that police have been “unfairly maligned and blamed for the crimes and unacceptable deeds of a few in their ranks.”
In some respects, though, leaders in law enforcement appear to have embraced reform more than politicians have.
For example, the sight of armored vehicles and other military-surplus weaponry used by police to quell the Ferguson unrest sparked a national debate over police militarization. Ultimately, the Obama administration put new limits on providing surplus military weaponry to local police departments. The use of that equipment by police can “alienate and intimidate local residents and may send the wrong message,” Obama said at the time.
Trump, whose presidential campaign was themed in part on a more muscular-looking approach to policing, reversed Obama’s order in 2017, intending to reopen the spigot of military hardware to local police officials. But there have been few takers. According to a USA Today analysis last year, shipments of military surplus equipment to local police forces continued dropping even after Trump rescinded Obama’s order.
“If you have a long rifle or you have a military vehicle (facing civilians), it looks bad,” one California police official told the newspaper, explaining why his department didn’t resume the heavy annual orders of Pentagon equipment that it had been ordering previously — reflecting, perhaps, one small first step since the lessons of Ferguson: “We’re not an occupying force.”
Kevin McDermott is a member of the Post-Dispatch Editorial Board.
This story is part of continuing coverage by the Post-Dispatch of the five-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. Next Sunday: Faces of Ferguson.