WMU-Cooley legal experts reflect on levels of social change one year after Ferguson

How far have we come in the one year after Ferguson? That is the question we posed to law professors and legal experts at WMU-Cooley Law School about the real and perceived change in society since the public protests and civil unrest over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. 

Here are their opinions:

Karen Fultz

Karen Fultz

Professor Karen Fultz: In my opinion, over the last 12 months, we have seen an immediate response from the Department of Justice which included, among other things, a proactive role in ensuring that local officers are properly trained and strongly encourage local leadership to incorporate change that is sensitive to the need for more diversity in police departments.

Diversity that is reflective of the communities that the police departments are serving.

The unfortunate occurrence prompted the influx of federal funding and the implementation of body cameras for local officers and social awareness around the country that reinvigorated the discussion of race relations.

Jeffrey D. Swartz

Jeffrey D. Swartz

Professor Jeffrey Swartz: I believe that the effect of Ferguson has been to bring a focus to the debate on the issues relating to white policing of African-Americans.  As a practical matter it has produced very little in tangible action.

Yes, body cameras are the subject of conversation, but that issue almost dropped out of sight until the more recent events in South Carolina and Texas.  The only other visible results have been the action of the Justice Department, not in prosecuting anyone, but in examining certain big city police departments and auditing their practices.  This has resulted in some department’s procedures and policing practices to be reviewed and amended.

Until there is more urgent and emergent action by the departments, very little will change over the short run.  The departments are claiming they lack the money to buy and implement the use of body cameras.  Federal funding will be needed and that will make the issue a major political football in a presidential election year.

Mark Dotson

Mark Dotson

Professor Mark Dotson: I am a child of the 60s and 70s.  Much of the civil unrest and social responses we saw then were a result of police incursions on human rights – especially the rights of African Americans. It was no coincidence therefore that witnessed the emergence of entities like the Black Panther movement and the stature of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fast forward to Ferguson, and the question of what tangible results can we identify as a result of the response of the shooting one year later, my opinion would have to reflect my awareness of the history of racial issues in this country and my sense for what qualifies as substantive change.On the positive front. I find that the youth, especially in the minority community, have become more vigilant – more aware of their environment. With respect to social and racial issues, you saw a similar response 40 years ago. You saw more solidarity. Greater willingness to express provocative opinions. More discussion, generally, in society as a whole. In addition, you hear more conviction in the voices of police department leaders when they speak of diversity, having a force that reflects society, and their support for community policing.The negative. For those that are hell-bent on never seeing the races co-exist peacefully, what we witnessed in Ferguson is not that different from what we experienced in the 60s and 70s, nor what we see today, one year later. Racist sentiments still exist. We have witnessed it again as recently as the South Carolina murders.In sum, the discussion has to be more than symbolic, like the removal of the confederate flag. For change to be meaningful – such that we are not having the same conversations from decades ago – every single individual needs to find a way to respect those unlike themselves.

Tonya Krause-Phelan

Tonya Krause-Phelan

Professor Tonya Krause-Phelan: In my opinion, the levels of social change one year after Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri are multi-faceted. At the highest level, President Barack Obama acknowledged racial discrimination continues to exist and that police injustice is a systemic problem in our country. To that extent, President Obama expressed a willingness to use federal dollars to force significant changes in the way police departments operate.

The President’s comments, along with the surrounding events, have also led to growing scrutiny of the way our police forces have become militarized over the past decades. As far back as the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, we have witnessed politicians call police forces to arms to wage wars on drugs, sex offenders, juveniles, gangs, cybercrime, illegal aliens, terrorists, and everyone in between. It’s no wonder that law enforcement views the general public as enemy combatants. This phenomenon has become so pervasive that President Obama President intends to limit the amount and type of military style equipment being funneled to local police departments.

The Department of Justice promptly launched two separate investigations: one to investigate the circumstances surrounding Michael Brown’s death, the other to investigate civil rights violations in Ferguson, Missouri. These investigations concluded that a pattern of civil rights violations existed in Ferguson.

As a result, a revolution—languid in some places, measured in others—has begun in law enforcement. Police departments around the country have begun to use body cameras to capture their interactions with the community. Those departments that have not already implemented body cameras have either begun the process or are investigating the best ways to implement such programs. Law enforcement, legal, and social experts alike have begun to discuss and analyze the effects, and necessary reform, of an over-militarized police force.

The public, through protests, public awareness, and grassroots campaigns for reform, continues to bring the issues of race, discrimination, and law enforcement reform front and center. These actions have sparked an important dialogue and have led to police departments across the country creating policies and programs to increase public trust and to provide the public with transparency and accountability.

No matter what one believes the social change and lasting legacy of Ferguson to be, how we continue to address these issues, effectuate change within law enforcement, and engage in honest discussions about race in our country will be the true legacy of Ferguson.

Frank C. Aiello

Frank C. Aiello

Professor Frank Aiello: The last year has continued to highlight the stark dichotomy of views on civil rights issues in this country.  As my colleagues have noted, there has been some action in response to the events of Ferguson. Yet we also saw a divisively worded dissent in the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision, a roll back of federal voting right protections, and further suspect police interaction with racial minorities.  Where does the silent majority stand on most of these issues and is its voice reflected in the policy momentum and judicial decisions since Ferguson?

How much do you think things have changed since the one-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown and the Ferguson protest?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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