From the chief of the police department to the president of the United States, government officials on Thursday promised a different approach to the racially charged unrest in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. But the situation demands a lot more than a stand-down by assault-rifle-toting police. It might require an act of Congress.
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said officers would “facilitate” protests, which began Sunday after a police officer shot an unarmed black teenager on Saturday. President Barack Obama assured the country that the FBI and the Justice Department were keeping a close eye on how local officials were handling the shooting investigation and the outraged street demonstrators. Some of those involved in forcefully dispersing protests won’t have a chance to do better: Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon officially relieved the St. Louis County Police, the principal authority on the ground in Ferguson, and put the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge.
That was justified in light of what Attorney General Eric Holder termed “unnecessarily extreme displays of force.” Nothing justifies looting or assaulting police, but law enforcement officers in Ferguson did not need to respond to mostly peaceful protests by deploying armored vehicles, pointing sniper rifles at civilians and tossing tear gas and shooting rubber bullets liberally into crowds. These tactics have been an affront to a community that needs to be heard, not suppressed.
Nor does the cause of public safety excuse the documented abuse of several journalists, including The Post’s Wesley Lowery, whom police detained for “trespassing” in a McDonald’s, and an Al Jazeera film crew, which was tear-gassed.
Our objection to the brandishing of tools of war in a crowd-control operation raises the further question of whether police departments have obtained too much military hardware from the Defense Department. Police officers with the wrong attitude can do a lot of damage with a nightstick or a pistol. It would be a good idea for the Pentagon to reconsider whether a local police force should ever need, say, a mine-resistant armored vehicle. Congress, too, could take more control of the equipment-transfer policy, in place since 1990.
We are glad to see that several successive nights of chaos seem to have snapped state and local leaders to attention. But they should have reacted days ago. Instead, they let angry feelings in Ferguson, already festering in a mostly black town with a white-dominated police force, expand further. Police can only do their jobs if they have a basic level of trust from the community they are charged with protecting. If that existed before the recent events in Ferguson, it does not now.
The next steps must include the de-escalation that leaders are promising, a full and fair investigation into the shooting and a thorough review of Ferguson’s and St. Louis County’s police training and staffing policies. The Obama administration deserves credit for pushing its investigation forward. It should not hesitate to pressure local leaders further if they continue to fumble.