President Barack Obama appealed for calm in a St. Louis suburb Thursday and the Missouri governor shifted control of security from local police to the state highway patrol after several nights of civil unrest that has captured the nation's attention. The protests following the death of an unarmed black teen shot by a police officer and the overreaction by police put the suburb of Ferguson on the map for all the wrong reasons. But the images of armored trucks, plumes of tear gas and police officers clad in riot gear offer lessons for all communities.
First, Ferguson police overreacted with a militarylike presence on the streets at night. That shocked Americans watching news reports and following along on Twitter, and it inflamed emotions on the ground. Police agencies in the Tampa Bay area and elsewhere have more military-type equipment and greater firepower than in other eras, and those resources should be used with restraint. The outrage over the aggressiveness in Ferguson led the governor to finally intervene on Thursday as school in the area was canceled for today.
Second, keeping residents informed in tense times is more important than ever. The police have refused to name the officer involved in the shooting and have withheld other details about the incident, including how many times the teen was hit. In the vacuum of information, tempers flared and rumors spread. Peaceful protestors were met by a police force, a mishmash of local and county agencies, that responded with guns drawn atop armored trucks in broad daylight. At night, when some of the protests turned violent, officers have fired rubber bullets into crowds, lobbed tear gas canisters near international news crews and arrested two journalists working in a fast-food restaurant.
Third, citizens have the right to conduct peaceful protests and law enforcement has to accommodate those protests even in times of stress. Ferguson tried to stop all gatherings at night, and it backfired. Law enforcement agencies in Tampa Bay and elsewhere are better trained to accommodate protesters and see that they remain peaceful.
Finally, law enforcement agencies have to work harder to hire officers who better reflect their communities. Only three of 53 police officers are black in Ferguson, where about two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black. The lack of trust between residents and law enforcement can escalate civil unrest, as Tampa and St. Petersburg learned in other decades.
The U.S. Justice Department and the FBI are conducting independent investigations into the teenager's death, which triggered this week's violence. That is an appropriate role for the federal government, particularly when local law enforcement overreacts and loses credibility and control of the situation. Obama said there is no excuse for violence against police, citizens conducting peaceful protests or members of the media. The mistakes made in Ferguson should provide valuable lessons to the rest of the nation about the importance of strong ties between residents and local police — and the consequences of overreaction by law enforcement.