Some good news may yet emerge from all the sad news surrounding the fatal shooting of an unarmed black youth by a white police officer in suburban St. Louis.
The shooting in Ferguson, Mo., led to violent and recurring protests that understandably drew sharp criticism from many Americans. But, importantly, it also launched a national discussion about racism and about how police should respond when challenged.
When a scholar who studies police behavior joins the conversation, that can only help Americans come to terms with a difficult situation.
David Perry, an expert on the exercise of power, sees a pattern that helps to explain the shooting in Missouri, and that pattern is the frequency with which police rely on what they call noncompliance as justification for behavior such as the killing of Michael Brown.
“The significance of the events in Missouri extends beyond the very real and terrible pattern of police killings of African-American men,” Perry wrote recently.
“It is an intensification of years of cultural shift in which law enforcement and other authority figures have increasingly treated noncompliance as a reason to initiate violence,” he continued.
“I have been tracking the rhetoric that police and other authority figures use to justify all kinds of violence,” Perry explained. “In cases that seem very different, separated by factors such as age, race, gender, sexuality, geography, class and ability, police explain away their actions by citing noncompliance.”
And noncompliance has become their license to act “because according to their beliefs, any sign of noncompliance is an invitation to strike,” he added in a report published by Al-Jazeera.
“To fight back, ordinary citizens need not only to push specific reforms but also to transform the culture of law enforcement,” he concluded, but of course that transformation cannot happen overnight, if it is to happen at all.
It is also significant — and encouraging — that well-known conservative politicians such as U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, of Texas, and Rand Paul, of Kentucky, have sharply criticized the police in this case.
Americans expect liberal politicians to speak up about perceived police misbehavior, but for libertarians such as Cruz and Paul to sound the same theme is somewhat surprising and suggests the possibility that our nation might actually be able to find common ground on this topic.
“If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager, there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off,” Paul wrote. “But, I wouldn’t have expected to be shot.”
He also joined the many Americans who have criticized what they regard — with alarm — as the growing militarization of local police forces, who get many of their weapons from the Pentagon.
“There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace,” Paul observed, “but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response.”
The entire world has seen photographs of Missouri police aiming their military weapons at the protesters in the streets of Ferguson, and there’s no way to measure the damage to our nation’s image caused by such depictions of police tactics.
Cruz, the Texas Republican who is as far to the right as any major American politician, wrote on Facebook about the need to protect civil liberties and the right of reporters — two of them were arrested while covering the story in Missouri — to cover the news without being intimidated.
Perhaps we’re closer to a positive consensus than anyone had thought, but it won’t be reached overnight.
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