The turmoil that ripped apart the community of Ferguson, Mo., should give us pause to think: Could this happen elsewhere? Could this happen here?
The shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman sparked a protest that turned violent. Response by police was heavy-handed, to say the least; it was a full-scale military assault. Since then, police scaled back their tactics and the governor sent in the National Guard in an attempt to restore peace. But the violent protests go on nightly, as outsiders have been drawn to the suburban community for the thrill of combat and the booty of looting alongside local criminals.
It should be understood that Washington, like the other municipalities in Washington and Greene counties, is not Ferguson. Our police departments, thankfully, have not rushed to participate in the Pentagon’s giveaway of surplus military hardware intended for war. Should civil unrest erupt in, say, Canonsburg, the local police response will not be with armored personnel carriers and helicopter gunships.
The St. Louis suburb’s population is two-thirds African American. Our two-county area is nearly 95 percent white. The city of Washington’s African American community is 20 percent of its population.
Fifty of Ferguson’s 53-person police department are white. It is no wonder the majority population there might feel alienated from the force paid by their tax dollars to protect and serve them.
But Washington has its own problems; its police force is 100 percent white. The city’s mayor and police chief don’t want it that way. They have met with leader’s of the city’s African American community, and all agree the police and fire departments need to be more diverse. These are good-paying jobs with generous benefits and pension plans, and the people who have them should be representative of the community’s population.
The reason for the lack of minorities in the departments is not discrimination, but rather a lack of interest and applicants. You don’t have to have a college degree to be a police officer. No minority candidates in recent years have even taken the civil service test, which is required by the state and will be offered in September.
The civil service test is hardly a gruelling academic challenge. Anyone can sample typical questions online, and they are questions that any high-school graduate with a bit of common sense will have little trouble answering. Employers, like the police department, choose candidates from the ranked list of those who have taken the test.
“There should be a sense of urgency and there should be a priority for the city to have a police force and fire department that represents the demographics of the population, and right now it doesn’t,” Robert Griffin, president of the Washington branch of the NAACP said in early July, long before the trouble in Ferguson. “There needs to be a commitment from the city to reach out to minority populations.”
What’s also needed is a commitment from the African American community, in particular, to convince young blacks that being a cop isn’t “trying to be white” but trying to have a good job and protect the peace.
“This is much larger than testing,” Griffin said in July. “It can be done, but we need to have the collective will to do it.”
The best way to avoid the calamity that rocked Ferguson, Mo., is not to presume urban unrest and arm our police to the teeth with assault rifles, grenade launchers and tear gas. The best way to avoid an explosion is to move the fuel away from the fire. Taking preventive action now to narrow the racial divide may spare us what has happened to Ferguson.