“History simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson,” Attorney General Eric Holder aptly recognized during his visit there. The conversation about Ferguson cannot start with the death of Michael Brown, a young unarmed black man shot to death by a white police officer. Though tragic in and of itself, the story goes back much further.
It is a sad truism that America’s laws—and the people charged with enforcing them—have not always protected communities of color. In the infamous Dred Scott case, which originated just miles from Ferguson, the Supreme Court shamefully ruled in 1857 that African Americans had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Though the case served as a catalyst for the Civil War and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments ratified shortly thereafter to supersede the ruling, deep-seated racism continued.
Jim Crow laws segregated society and relegated African Americans to second-class citizens. Lynchings terrorized communities. All too often not only did law enforcement fail to protect African American communities, but police officers participated in the lynch mobs. During the Civil Rights Movement, now-infamous images captured police officers using dogs, fire hoses and billy clubs against peaceful protestors.
Since the Civil Rights Movement half a century ago we have worked hard as a nation to move towards a more just and equal society. We have come a long way, but Ferguson stands as a stark reminder that we still have a long way to go.
In addressing the crisis in Ferguson, the first step must be open and respectful dialogue. We cannot move forward unless and until we face the past. Part of that discussion must be about the role of law enforcement and their relationship with the communities they have sworn to serve and protect.
Since 1999 the Anti-Defamation League, in partnership with the United States Holocaust Museum, has conducted trainings for law enforcement—from police chiefs and the head of federal agencies to recruits and new FBI agents—exploring what happens when police lose sight of the values they swore to uphold and their role as protectors of the people they serve. By contrasting the conduct of police in Nazi Germany, and the role that law enforcement is expected to play in our democracy, the program underscores the importance of safeguarding constitutional rights, building trust with the people and communities they serve, and the tragic consequences when there is a gap between how law enforcement behaves and the core values of the profession.
We know from our work that the vast majority of officers care deeply about the communities they serve. But that is not to say police are infallible. None of us is. And there are certainly some within law enforcement who engage in misconduct, as is the case in every profession. But the bad acts of some cannot and do not define law enforcement.
America is strongest and safest when there is mutual understanding and trust between law enforcement and communities. We must seek to build those bridges by recognizing our troublesome past, acknowledging the problems persisting today, and committing to changes that move us forward to a more perfect union.