Police mistrust still prevalent years later

By Jesse L. Holland | 8/22/2014, 2:09 p.m.
For one night, all was well in Ferguson, Missouri. After a change in police command, violent protests decrying the shooting ...
Police tackle a man who was walking down the street in front of McDonald’s on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. The man appeared to be walking past a group that had been assembled nearby and police were telling everyone to keep walking. Moments after he turned around and exchanged words with the police that he was just walking, police took him to the ground. Although there is no curfew in order tonight, police are strictly enforcing protestors to keep moving along the sidewalk or they are subject to arrest. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Laurie Skrivan)

WASHINGTON (AP) — For one night, all was well in Ferguson, Missouri. After a change in police command, violent protests decrying the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of white police officer Darren Wilson suddenly gave way to peaceful demonstrations.

A day later, Ferguson police, under pressure to disclose Wilson’s name, also revealed that Brown was suspected of stealing cigars from a local store before his deadly encounter with Wilson. That announcement was met with disbelief and anger by several residents, who said police were trying to smear Brown’s name to justify his shooting.

And the streets of Ferguson exploded anew.

Brown’s death is the latest illustration of deep divisions between minorities and police that have simmered for generations. Concern about the events playing out in Ferguson has coursed all the way up to the White House. President Barack Obama said Attorney General Eric Holder would go to Missouri this week to check on the independent federal investigation into Brown’s death.

“In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement,” the president said.

The depth of this distrust becomes obvious in polling. While the unrest was occurring in Missouri, almost two-thirds of blacks — 65 percent — surveyed by the Pew Research Center said police went too far in their response to the Ferguson protests, while one-third of whites agreed and nearly another third said the police response has been about right. The Pew survey was conducted Aug. 14-17.

Gallup polling between 2012 and 2014 showed that a majority of blacks, or 64 percent, had only some, very little or no confidence in the police, while the majority of the whites questioned, or 58 percent, had either a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police. Between 2009 and 2011, Gallup found 61 percent of blacks only had partial or no confidence in police, while 62 percent of whites had a lot of confidence in the police.

One factor that breeds distrust is racial disparity between police and the communities they serve. Ferguson is nearly 70 percent black, while the police department is more than 90 percent white.

Distrust is also fueled by a perception of unchecked police violence through the ages: the 1992 acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King; the 1967 beating in Newark, New Jersey, of cab driver John Smith; Miami in 1980, after the acquittal of six white police officers in the beating death of black motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie; Cincinnati in 2001 after 19-year-old Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by a police officer. Rioting followed each of these cases.


Protestor standing along side police officer with sign.

“More African-Americans and Latinos believe police stop people without due cause, use excessive force and engage in verbal abuse than white Americans,” said Ronald Weitzer, a George Washington University sociology professor who has studied race and policing in the U.S. and internationally. “So they not only tend to see the police as having some racial biases, but also in their day-to-day activities behaving in ways that are more obtrusive and maybe unjustified in dealing with citizens.”