For months following Michael Brown’s shooting, the national and international media have focused on Ferguson and the St. Louis region. But when the White House held meetings earlier this week to discuss questions raised by the shooting and the decision not to indict the police officer who shot Brown, it did not invite any elected, community, faith or law enforcement leaders from Missouri.
The president did meet briefly with several young activists from the St. Louis area and other parts of the country, but one participant says the president mostly listened and did not respond directly to their stories.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., does not see the omission of Missouri leaders from the meetings as a slight. While area leaders do have much to share the rest of the country, McCaskill said she believes the White House is deliberately trying to broaden the current focus on policing and race away from recent events in Ferguson and onto a broader national conversation.
“They’ve gotten an awful lot of input from St. Louis and Ferguson and they have not had as much input from the rest of the country that also has a serious problem,” said McCaskill.
She also said the White House was trying to “take some of the pressure off the people in Ferguson and St. Louis, by making the country realize, this isn’t just about buildings burning in Ferguson… last week, but this is a much broader question.”
McCaskill added that “most of the people who are going to be key in working on this issue have spent a lot of time with the people of Ferguson.” Specifically, McCaskill said that Ron Davis, the director of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services Office, “has been on the ground in Ferguson for a great deal of time,” along with several members of the Justice Department’s community relations team.
Davis has also been named to the president’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing, which is supposed to recommend how to build trust between local police departments and the communities they serve. The president wants those recommendations on his desk within 90 days. In addition to Davis, the White House named two individuals respected in both law enforcement and the civil rights community as co-chairs: Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who also serves as president of the Major Cities Chiefs of Police Association; and Laurie Robinson, a professor at George Mason University and a former assistant attorney general.
To date, the White House has not named any other members of the task force, nor has it said when it will. McCaskill said she is hopeful that a Missourian will be named to the panel.
“I have made suggestions to them of names I think would be terrific,” she said.
Lessons learned on community policing
In a phone call with Missouri reporters Wednesday morning, McCaskill said that as she looks back over the past several months, “one of the biggest mistakes the country made was to move away from the very aggressive efforts that were made during the '90s in community policing.”
One major problem, said McCaskill, is the “us versus them mentality of policing.”
“The vast majority of police officers are only trying to protect people in all neighborhoods from crime, but how they do that, and whether or not they are seen as part of the community, or as an adversary force, is really important,” she said.
In an effort to illustrate the importance and value of community policing, McCaskill says she asks business leaders whether they know the names of any Ferguson police officers or whether they’ve ever invited an officer responsible for patrolling in their neighborhoods to be part of a business meeting.
McCaskill says the country needs to re-establish a sense of belonging through community policing. An officer needs to be “seen as part of the community rather than by some, as a bully, somebody who is harassing people as opposed to someone who is there to protect the vast majority of citizens who just want to go to work… raise their children… and don’t want to be victims of crime.”
As a prosecutor in Kansas City in the 1990s, McCaskill said she saw how community policing “worked in very, very crime-ridden neighborhoods. I saw how the neighborhoods came together to support the police because the police were there as members of their community, not there as someone who had an us-versus-them mentality.” She says she plans “to see if I can push the needle in that direction, toward more community police work.”
Help Inform Our Coverage
Please help St. Louis Public Radio follow up on this story. Click here to become a source in the Public Insight Network and share: How can we help all people trust law enforcement officers?