Ferguson Has No Place in Our History – Or Our Museum.By Lt. Pete Ebel | Sep 27, 2019
A reader speaks out.
When a group of fellow law enforcement instructors and I got the chance to visit the National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago, I was excited. This was a chance to take a walk through the history of our profession; a chance to view the stories and artifacts associated with our brothers and sisters who gave all they had—in some cases, their lives—to protect the public.
After walking just a few feet into the first group of displays, however, I saw something that turned my stomach. The word FERGUSON, big and bold, slapped me across the face. Copies of articles from the Washington Post (“No Indictment in Ferguson Teenager’s Killing”) and the Wall Street Journal (“Protesters Turn Out in U.S. Cities Following Ferguson Decision”) screamed out at me.
To the left of the Ferguson display stood the remnants of an American flag which was sifted from the rubble of the World Trade Center—a solemn reminder of the attack in which we lost 71 law enforcement officers. Posted to its right was a story about one of the most infamous and cowardly attacks on our profession: the night 12 officers were shot and five murdered in the 2016 Dallas police ambush.
Sorry, but the word Ferguson just doesn’t belong there.
Understand that this article is not meant to defend everything that has been done in this profession. There are some areas in which reform was (and still is) needed. But Ferguson should not be held as the defining moment for this change. The narrative surrounding Ferguson has been proven to be built on a series of lies, untruths (a nice way of saying the former), and rumors.
We know quite a few facts about the incident. Michael Brown did not have his hands up, despite the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative that was force-fed to us through every news outlet in the country. Nor was he shot in the back; Brown was not shot in the back. Credible witnesses and physical evidence confirmed that Brown attacked Officer Darren Wilson. Forensic evidence included three autopsies: one by local authorities, one by renowned former New York City Chief Medical Examiner Michael M. Baden—who was hired by the Brown family—and one by the United States Department of Justice. The findings of all three were consistent; there were no revelations. Finally, at least two investigations concluded that there was no evidence to indict Officer Wilson.
And, yet, there it was in the museum, staring me in the face:
A placard was mounted below which discussed changes made since the incident, mostly related to body cameras. My belief is that a body camera would not have changed a thing in Ferguson. Officer Wilson would have still feared for his life while being attacked by the 6-foot-4, 292-pound “unarmed teenager,” as the press loved to call Brown. In his grand jury testimony, Wilson said, “When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.”
Let’s talk about the “change” that has happened since Ferguson. Some call it reform; I prefer to call it the de-policing of America, or the neutering of the American police officer.
Everything today is based on risk avoidance. We no longer react to defend ourselves while being approached by a gang member who is holding a bucket containing an unknown liquid and threatening to throw it on us. When they do throw it on us—even though it turns out to be water—we take no action. Worse, we take no action (or are restrained from it by political influence) when we are threatened or pelted with rocks and bottles.
We have curtailed our law enforcement activities with fewer suspicious person stops, traffic stops, and other proactive measures. Officers are discouraged from foot pursuits by bosses because they often result in a use of force at the end. In response, police are putting blinders on and driving right by those drug dealers, burglars, or armed robbers lurking in the alleys of America. In short, there is no longer a penalty for being a criminal standing on a street corner with a loaded .45 in his waistband and 100 caps of heroin in his pocket.
Perhaps the best example I can give of this reality is when I was teaching a leadership class in a county in Florida which has extremely no-nonsense police leaders and a very well-established reputation for proactive law enforcement. This class was held about a year after Ferguson. I asked the class a question regarding the morale of their personnel. A young sergeant who I recognized immediately as a high-speeder raised his hand and said, “Two words, lieutenant: firemen cops!” I knew what he meant, but I asked him to explain. He said that his officers sit behind a grocery store, get their call for service, respond, gather the information, and then go back behind the grocery store to write the report. “We only respond to the fire alarm,” he said; he was seeing very little proactive policing going on.
Let’s be clear here: I’m talking about proactive policing in the form of getting out of the car, approaching bad guys, frisking for weapons, searching for drugs, etc. when it is lawful to do so. I’m talking about chasing that suspicious person who runs away when we have cause. I’m talking about traffic stops that not only promote traffic safety but also detect criminal activity. I’m talking about what a boss of mine used to refer to as “the police adventure.” We all accepted that there was some risk in this job when we joined; in fact, many liked that. While we tried to stack the safety odds in our favor, the term “risk avoidance” was not in our vernacular.
Do we want to live in an America where a cop drives right past that broken-down car at 3:30 in the morning, even though someone’s 16-year-old daughter might be sitting in it? What kind of advice do I give my daughter, who just started the police academy last month? The parent in me wants to tell her to drive right on by because that car could also contain a criminal who is willing to shoot his way out of being arrested. Spend your 25 or 30 without a hitch. But as a street cop who never drove past anything—who got involved in everything no matter how bad it looked—I know she wants to be like her dad. She wants to be a public servant who makes her community safer by arresting the worst of the worst. She wants to ensure that miscreants are removed from our streets so they cannot stalk and harm the helpless and unaware.
Yes, we have body cameras all over since Ferguson. I’m not an opponent of them, as they have exonerated far more officers than they have harmed. But the fact that politicians are calling for them bothers me. It is offensive to me that the men and women who selflessly run toward gunfire and defend even those who hate them are asked to wear cameras on the job. One county in Florida had four city and county commissioners in two years indicted and sent to prison for corruption—and they want us to wear body cameras? If you ask me, politicians ought to be wearing them.
And while we are on the subject of politicians, the hits just keep on coming. As most of you are probably aware, U.S. presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris got on the Michael Brown bandwagon by using the word “murder” when referring to the incident just weeks ago.
I say we get back to policing and back to the core mission of what we do: law enforcement. Let’s stop apologizing for doing it. If we do it wrong, the public will get its transparency after a proper and fair investigation. But we get it right most of the time.
And the National Law Enforcement Museum is full of examples of those times we did it right. Michael Brown and the lie that was and is Ferguson does not have a place in it.
It is a slap in the face to our noble profession. Even worse, it is an insult to every name on the wall across the street from the museum. That wall—the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial—bears the name of every law enforcement officer who has lost his or her life defending the law and order of this land. Let’s not taint their legacy with lies and by making our officers less effective at doing their jobs.
Thoughts? Please feel free to share them at firstname.lastname@example.org