Michael Brown shooting: How a police tactical shift can de-escalate aftermath

Experts in police and race relations are outlining ways new police tactics can calm tensions in the wake of protests and riots over the Michael Brown shooting.
Demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo. protest the shooting of Michael Brown, who was unarmed, by a white police officer. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Associated Press)

Now that Missouri's governor has announced that state police will take over major security duties from local police in the seething St. Louis suburb that's seen such violent protests in the aftermath of the Michael Brown killing, people may wonder whether the new approach will be successful in defusing the anger.

Gov. Jay Nixon's announcement that state Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is black, will now be in charge of policing efforts at the protests came after the local police response drew heavy criticism.  The fact that Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot multiple times by a white policeman was just the first spark. The aggressive response from the local police force has so far only added to the community's anger. 

Nixon said the change is intended to make sure "that we allow peaceful and appropriate protests, that we use force only when necessary, that we step back a little bit and let some of the energy be felt in this region appropriately."

But people are already musing about how to successfully deal with the next chapter in this powderkeg.

Johnson said he grew up in the community where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot last Saturday and "it means a lot to me personally that we break this cycle of violence."
Police have been accused of heavy-handed tactics in dealing with protesters. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Nixon said that changes will include "peaceful interaction up front with the force at the back," referring to the “militaristic” nature of the Ferguson police force’s response.

"This feels a little like an old wound that has been hit again. It has been a long time simmering. The challenges we face here go much more deep. The key to this is to get control, let voices be heard, showing less force on the front side -- but ultimately getting to some of these deeper problems. Not only in Missouri, but in America. This has clearly touched a nerve."

Laurence Miller, a clinical and forensic psychologist who works with the West Palm Beach Sheriff’s Department and who also teaches law enforcement strategies to police officers, agrees. He told CBC News that explosive situations like the one in Ferguson “don’t happen in a vacuum.”

“A police officer that overreacts in a situation is doing so in an atmosphere in which the police are viewed as kind of an occupational force in the community and the community is acting in a way that is trying to stay out of any confrontation with the police.”

Miller said officers have to understand the difference between being authoritative versus being authoritarian.

“When you are authoritative, you exude calm, strength and authority. People respect you because they know when push comes to shove, you will use appropriate authority,” he said.

Miller said authoritarian types tend to act “cocky” but get no “real respect” from members of the community, who will turn on the officer when given the opportunity. He said he would recommend that the police chief in Ferguson make sure “patrol officers are conducting themselves appropriately.”

'Pick your battles'

Miller said he would tell officers to “pick your battles” and to take the high road, since the situation remains so tense with the community.

“Right now, do you have to give a ticket for jay walking? I mean, still maintain the law, but as officers, they have tremendous discretion in terms of enforcing it.”

Ferguson is almost 70 per cent black while only three out of 53 police officers in the suburb of St. Louis are black. (Jeff Roberson/ Associated Press)

Miller adds he often instructs officers to keep their “sense of dignity and professionalism” especially when it comes to people calling them names or yelling at them.

“Your job is to handle the situation. What makes people want to riot is when authority is used unfairly and excessively.”

Miller suggested the police security forces exhibit transparency and create a kind of police citizen’s council – so they can report to the council about what the force is doing.

“The worst thing you can do is go into self-protective mode, it implies you have something to hide,” said Miller. “You don’t necessarily have to open the books, you have to tell people what you are doing [and] explain what steps you’re taking.”

Both of Miller’s recommendations are echoed by Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which has members comprised of police chiefs and sheriffs from the largest cities in the U.S., Canada and U.K. Stephens has more than 40 years of police experience; his last job was chief of police for Charlotte-Mecklenberg, N.C. He retired in 2008.

“The only thing they can do is be transparent and engage the community with respect to their concerns about the police service,” he said.

3rd party help

Stephens and Miller say shifting responsibility from the force is a promising move.

“Like an independent facilitator to manage the conversation,” said Stephens. “Outside help is really critical because people get locked into their positions and their perceptions about things. It often takes someone from the outside to open things up.”

It often takes someone from the outside to open things up.- Darrel Stephens

Stephens recalled an incident from his time as police chief in St. Petersburg, Fla., in the mid-1990s

“We had a shooting involving a young African-American man and an officer was killed. We had disturbances and the community relations service of the Justice Department helped us restore confidence.”

Stephens said his force worked with the local faith community and helped develop some economic programs.

“This is a huge problem in urban areas, the lack of opportunity, which creates hostility towards government and those are some of the things the city of Ferguson will have to work on going forward.”

Stephens said any fruitful conversation is “going to take several months.”

David Goldberg, head of the humanities department at the University of California (Irvine) told CBC News there are deeper issues at play when it comes to police shootings and the black community. “Black parents have said, ‘Why is it that I have to explain to my children how to get arrested [safely]?’”

According to Goldberg, who specializes in criminology, race and racism, "at this point, people aren’t looting or throwing things as much."

“The police need to immediately demilitarize [and] get out from behind the barriers, so to speak.”

Goldberg said it's about a big power imbalance.

“A black mother was interviewed recently and said her 12-year-old son was stopped and frisked by an officer on his way back from school,” recounted Goldberg. “He asked her ‘how long will this go on?’ She said she told him: ‘for the rest of your life.’”

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar has said he welcomes race relations training in the St. Louis suburb, where about 70 per cent of the 21,000 residents are black and only three of the force’s 53 officers are black. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?