I don’t know what transpired between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. We know from the store video that Brown could be a bully. He acted badly that night and was the legitimate object of police attention. I suspect that Officer Wilson is telling some rough version of the truth about their initial encounter, though not about its entirety. Brown didn’t have to end up dead, riddled with bullets. He didn't have to be left bleeding on the pavement for hours. He had a whole life ahead of him. We have every reason to believe that he would have contributed much of value to the world, and to the people he left behind.
Whatever precisely happened in those tragic two minutes, events in Ferguson should focus our attention on two enormous challenges.
The first of these is the quiet rise of suburban poverty in America. Poor people increasingly live outside central cities, spread across a checkerboard of fragmented jurisdictions whose governments are ill equipped to respond. Health systems, policing, job training, and social services are hard-pressed to keep up. The philanthropic community is typically oriented to the urban center. Many suburban governments are under-resourced and not particularly welcoming or accountable to low-income minority populations.
Ferguson's criminal justice system did not earn the deference and trust it demanded.
Where I live, in greater Cook County, the majority of poor people now live in nondescript suburbs outside Chicago’s city limits. We haven’t had a Ferguson-type conflagration, but we know the dynamic. An older, more organized and prosperous population dominates the local political economy. Low-income residents, growing in number, are more transient and less engaged, less likely to vote. Or the community simply succumbs to middle-class flight.
At a festival this past summer in my suburban town, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the young people were African American; virtually all the police officers and EMTs were white. We don’t seem to face Ferguson’s problems. Yet how would I really know? I needed to Google the name of my own mayor.
Poverty, joblessness, and crime demand regional responses that do not rely on the often-dysfunctional, under-resourced, and unmonitored patchwork of local governments. Public policy hasn’t caught up to this reality. Left-liberal politics hasn’t caught up, either. Outside marquee locales, we mostly ignore local politics, where so many key civic disputes play out.
The second enormous challenge is suggested by a particularly important sentence in Loury’s essay: “Public safety is the product of police working together with community residents.”
Police must exercise a monopoly on the use of force. Yet the police must earn this monopoly in order to command legitimacy. This is particularly true in low-income minority communities that have so many needs for effective policing—and so many reasons to be wary of what this policing actually entails.
Police cannot simply demand communities’ deference and trust, particularly in the aftermath of an ambiguous tragedy, which may involve police mistakes or misconduct. Ferguson’s criminal justice system did far too little to earn the deference and trust it demanded. And even if the police department had enjoyed a good reputation and harbored the best intentions, how was a 94 percent–white force supposed to serve a majority-minority community?
Before Brown’s death, Ferguson police’s heavy-handed tactics undermined their legitimacy, as did excessive use of fines for petty offenses to raise revenue. So did the strange, heavily militarized response to protests. And St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch’s apparent manipulation of the grand jury process in favor of non-indictment dealt yet another blow to law enforcement there.
Lack of police legitimacy amplified the prospects of further disorder, including sickening losses to local shopkeepers who did not perpetrate injustices. Failures of criminal justice policy lessen the chance that Ferguson will ever emerge as a harmonious integrated community where people of all backgrounds feel secure and respected in their constitutional rights and personal security.
What happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown was a familiar tragedy. Ferguson’s criminal justice practices made this tragedy even worse. I fear we will see similar instances across the landscape of suburban low-income America.