AN EDITOR'S LIFE | Proper justice starts with us

Even before the U.S. Department of Justice released the long-anticipated "Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department," our community heard stories of abuses by Ferguson's police and in the municipal courts. Many protesters last year cited these injustices as the real motivation for protests. Michael Brown's shooting was just a catalyst.

The protests often were mixed with criminal acts of violence and vandalism. Police -- and even some protesters -- pointed to outside agitators as the antagonists.

After reading the report released March 4, one can reasonably question who the agitators were before Aug. 9, the day of Brown's death.

The report has been described by many as "scathing." No doubt, it meets that definition, but perhaps that word isn't scathing enough. It's piercing. Heartbreaking. Agitating.

With sufficient evidence, the report details how a culture of aggressive revenue generation through traffic and code enforcement was encouraged by the city's top brass. Officers who weren't on board were subject to discipline and/or were passed over for promotions.

It reveals how police and the court made it difficult, if not impossible, for the poor to reconcile even minor offenses of which most of us are guilty; how they regularly subjected citizens, particularly African-Americans, to unlawful detention, arrest and abuse through excessive force; how they used a "facially unconstitutional" municipal ordinance to enforce compliance of illegal orders; and how they arrested citizens who verbally challenged officers' conduct.

Some might argue that police are simply doing their jobs and citizens need to embrace a stronger sense of personal responsibility. "Don't break the law," they'll say, "and you won't have anything to worry about." But, as the report cited, many times people in Ferguson weren't breaking the law but were detained or arrested. Even minor infractions frequently resulted in abuse of power, excessive citations and physical abuse.

If you haven't read the report, you should. No matter your political affiliation, no matter your opinion on the inciting incident or subsequent unrest, the report should disturb you. If you're a Christian, it should sadden you. If you're an American, it might anger you. The behaviors cited in the report -- racism, classism, anti-citizenism -- are the type this country was founded to combat. The behaviors are unAmerican.

As I read the report, I reflected on my life and my interactions with police. The few I've had have been mostly reasonable, save for a few run-ins with overzealous police interfering with legitimate news reporting. When I've received a legitimate traffic ticket, I've paid it -- but even with a decent salary, the fine is a hardship. Those unable to pay immediately should be offered an alternative, not sacked with more fines -- a practice criticized by the DOJ report.

It's difficult to imagine a life in which we can't simply walk on our sidewalks or drive on our streets without fear of intimidation, harassment or abuse.

The report depicts such a world, in our nation, in our community, in one of our parishes. I suspect even the police whose actions are described in the report fear such a world. Perhaps they've gotten too wrapped up in their own realm of power and revenue that they've forgotten that the people they serve are their neighbors.

The report concludes with a list of changes the Ferguson police and courts should adopt to correct their deeply flawed practices and relationships with the community. Hopefully Ferguson authorities take the report, and their relationship with the community, seriously enough to implement change.

But real change for justice isn't just a responsibility of the police and courts. It's a commitment we must all make by making our own lists of behaviors to mitigate future abuses. We can start with the Ten Commandments.

Phillips is director of publications for the archdiocese.


 

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