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August 18, 2014

Police force diversity in national spotlight following teen’s death

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The shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, has spurred over a week of protests and thrown the question of police diversity into the spotlight.

Over two-thirds of the population in Ferguson is black, and all but three of Ferguson’s 53 police officers are white. This caused tension within the community, according to Malik Aziz, chairman of the national black police association.

Protests broke out after the shooting, and some have criticized police for using what they call military-style tactics to contain protesters, including tear gas and dogs. President Obama called for calm on Thursday, asking both protesters and police to be peaceful.

“Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson,” Obama said. “Now is the time for an open and transparent process to see that justice is done.”

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced on Friday that the Missouri State Highway Patrol would take over security in Ferguson, and on Saturday imposed a curfew between midnight and 5 a.m.

But protests were reportedly heated over the weekend as a group defied the curfew, and Nixon said today that he would deploy the state’s National Guard to Ferguson.

Diversifying the police force could help quell some of this tension in the future, Aziz said. “The long-term solution is for Ferguson and places like Ferguson to actually diversify their police departments,” he said.

Ferguson police and eyewitnesses have conflicting accounts of what happened before officer Darren Wilson shot Brown. Police say that Brown and Wilson scuffled, while eyewitness accounts state that Brown was unarmed, surrendered with his hands in the air and said “Don’t shoot” shortly before his death.

A private autopsy showed that Brown was shot at least six times.

Ferguson police have released surveillance footage that may show Brown in a convenience store robbery shortly before his death, but Wilson was not aware that Brown was a suspect in this robbery.


Warm up questions
  1. What is accountability? Who are your local police accountable to?
  2. When police patrol streets in your neighborhood, what is the relationship between the police and the residents?  What would be the ideal relationship? What would be a dangerous relationship?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Why might it be important for officers on a police force to have a similar racial makeup as the community they serve? Do you think that would have made a difference in the events that took place in Ferguson?
  2. Police diversity experts Tracie Keesee and Malik Aziz both mentioned important steps that need to be taken by police forces to ensure a good relationship with their community.  They included transparency, accountability and community engagement. Using examples from the story, make arguments whether the police in Ferguson were or were not able to successfully execute these three principles.
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