Police Cannot Be An Occupying Army in a Democracy

Credit: Reuters
Credit: Reuters

It’s clear by now that the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, went way too far. How do we have local police dressing up in hardened riot gear and using military-style weapons as well as military-style vehicles? How is it considered wise to start with that response at the first sign of trouble?

It hasn’t always been that way. There are great examples of effective policing that allows for free speech and assembly and protects those rights.

Citizens Agree To Be Policed If There Is Trust

Before his death, retired Oklahoma City Police Chief Wayne Lawson used to talk to me about his experiences in law enforcement.* The most striking thing about all of his stories were that they were about how a citizen had helped him out just when he was about to get hurt or killed.

But when I found out his work history, it made perfect sense. The first assignment that he had as a young officer was walking a beat–a foot patrol–in the tough Capital Hill area of Oklahoma City. But it wasn’t like in the movies. He walked that beat by himself. And the only communication with the central station was at an occasional call box. No radios. Those came much later.

It was on that beat that he learned how critical it was for him to make every friend that he legitimately could. The police are almost always outnumbered, but when walking a foot patrol by yourself, that is radically true.

In that environment he learned that his ability to police that population had everything to do with his knowledge of them, their knowledge of him as a fair and honest cop, and his ability to make friends. The gun he carried was important to his safety, but not in any way important to his ability to police the population. They agreed for him to police them.

Violence Averted in the Turbulent ’60s

Years later, in 1969, as Police Chief, he helped avoid what easily could have turned into the worse riot in the history of the city. But it was averted with not so much as a bloody nose because of his knowledge of all the people of the city, including its black population. It was also due to his respect for the population’s need and right to free speech and assembly.

The event was the “Black Friday” protest that was planned because of the city’s response to protests by the garbage workers, most of whom were black. They had gone on strike earlier in the week and a series of declarations and threats had been issued earlier by the mayor while he was also reaching out to the leaders of the black citizens.

The day came. A large protest march happened that ended at City Hall. Expressions of disappointment with the City Council and Mayor were expressed. Lawson stood right next to the protest leaders on the steps of City Hall and provided the bull horn for them to speak to the crowd.

According to a couple of stories from that day, it turned out to be positive from many angles.

Originally, protesters were not going to be allowed to approach City Hall. But at the last minute, Lawson’s gut told him that there would be a better way to handle the emotions of the moment.

Credit: The Oklahoman Archives
Credit: The Oklahoman Archives

At the end of the speeches, Lawson addressed the crowd in a way that seems strange in this day of tough-guy posturing from the Police Chief and police of Ferguson:

Credit: The Oklahoman Archives
Credit: The Oklahoman Archives

There was no violence then or later as other protests took place around the city in following days. Why? It was tremendous leadership and hard work by black community leaders who insisted on peaceful protest. Without their work, events could have taken a very negative turn.

Also, it was due to Lawson’s knowledge of the people who he was policing. I also knew one of his majors from that time, and he had the same sharp knowledge of people in general and the sub-cultures of Oklahoma City in specific. Lawson demanded that from his leaders and officers.

He was a contemporary of infamous police chiefs of the 1960s such as Rocky Pomerance of Miami Beach, Florida, and Bull Connor of Birmingham, Alabama.  But his approach to law enforcement, especially during the hard times of large, angry protests was deeply different. And that’s what is important to the current distressing situation in Ferguson, Missouri.

Police Have Choices

The police leaders there do have a choice about how they will respond to these protests. And now, their responses show little regard for the people who depend upon the police for their safety and well-being. Except in this case, the police are a cause for fear, not only from the black citizens of Ferguson, but from reporters who are trying to cover the events happening there.

Credit: Associated Press
Credit: Associated Press

Starting this situation with riot gear, military-style weapons/vehicles, and threats was not the way to diffuse an already tense situation that had been caused in the first place by aggressive, antagonistic policing that lead to a citizen’s death. There is a difference in how police and city leaders chose to respond to difficult situations.

The response of the mostly white police department controlled by a mostly white city council in a city that is over 60% black is more like an occupying army than a police force. The change has to happen in Ferguson, but there are many other communities where a remote and overly aggressive police department have created smoldering resentments waiting to be touched off.

Ferguson can be a way for us to have this conversation about what is effective policing and how it is different from a military occupation of a hostile population.

But it starts with relief for the citizens of Ferguson. It’s time for the rest of us — citizens of the entire nation — to demand better choices that respect the Constitutional protections that citizens and the press have been given.

* My relationship to Wayne Lawson was my good fortune due to my being assigned as pastor to the church that he and his wife had been a member of for many years. They lived in Oklahoma City their entire adult lives. He was my parishioner until his death when I co-officiated his funeral with another pastor who had been a life-long friend.