(This article first appeared on the Christian Life Commission web site.)
In the summer of 2012, a 32-year-old African American man sat in his car cooling off after playing basketball in a public park. A law enforcement officer pulled up behind the man’s car, blocking him in, and demanded the man’s Social Security number and identification.
That’s how the story begins. It’s part of the U.S. Justice Department’s report on racial discrimination in Ferguson, Mo. If those of us who are Anglo Americans do not understand why many African Americans distrust law enforcement, this story offers an example of why.
Without any cause, the officer accused the man of being a pedophile, referring to the presence of children in the park, and ordered the man out of his car for a pat-down, although the officer had no reason to believe the man was armed. The officer also asked to search the man’s car. The man objected, citing his constitutional rights. In response, the officer arrested the man, reportedly at gunpoint, charging him with eight violations of Ferguson’s municipal code. One charge, Making a False Declaration, was for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of “Michael”), and an address which, although legitimate, was different from the one on his driver’s license. Another charge was for not wearing a seatbelt, even though he was seated in a parked car. The officer also charged the man both with having an expired operator’s license, and with having no operator’s license in his possession. The man told us that, because of these charges, he lost his job as a contractor with the federal government that he had held for years.
Yes, this is only one side of the story, but these stories are all too common throughout our nation. There’s a tired old expression that generally is true — where there’s smoke, there’s fire — not always, but often. There has been lots of smoke regarding white racism in the United States and a whole lot of fire, so Ferguson is not an isolated case.
Another story from the report:
An African-American man recounted to us an experience he had while sitting at a bus stop near Canfield Drive. According to the man, an FPD patrol car abruptly pulled up in front of him. The officer inside, a patrol lieutenant, rolled down his window and addressed the man:
Lieutenant: Get over here.
Bus Patron: Me?
Lieutenant: Get the f*** over here. Yeah, you.
Bus Patron: Why? What did I do?
Lieutenant: Give me your ID.
Bus Patron: Why?
Lieutenant: Stop being a smart ass and give me your ID.
The lieutenant ran the man’s name for warrants. Finding none, he returned the ID and said, “get the hell out of my face. These allegations are consistent with other, independent allegations of misconduct that we heard about this particular lieutenant, and reflect the routinely disrespectful treatment many African Americans say they have come to expect from Ferguson police. That a lieutenant with supervisory responsibilities allegedly engaged in this conduct is further cause for concern.
These stories represent just two of the many detailing biased policing from the Department of Justice’s report, but these types of stories get retold throughout the African American community and breed mistrust — the kind of mistrust, which too often leads to the shooting of unarmed black men.
As I’ve said before, most law enforcement officers are wonderful people who desire to serve the community and have the unpleasant task of dealing with a lot of bad people. But some officers are bad, and African Americans experience this more than Anglos.
Here’s another tired old expression — one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. Let’s pray for our law enforcement officers and their bosses. Pray that they will be empowered and encouraged to root out the bad apples, because those bad ones can indeed spoil the whole bunch.