Blogger’s note: this was started a few days ago, and so parts of it may seem inconsistent in regard to timing.

In most regards, the search for a new police chief in Pittsburgh has absolutely nothing to do with Ferguson MO where an unarmed young black man was shot to death by police this week and things have exploded since. However, in some ways these events are worth thinking about together, especially if the question is to ask, what does a community want and need from a professional police force? Needless to say, I doubt if any cop from this St Louis surrounding community is seeking Pittsburgh’s police chief position. Given the way we have watched things play out in Ferguson, is it a fair question to ask: can Pittsburgh find the type of police chief we are seeking or is the militarization of policing so messed up, that the type of leader we are looking for, doesn’t exist?

Being a police officer and being a chief of police are extremely demanding jobs to be sure. Not only do we expect them to make good choices and appropriate actions 100% of the time! But those actions happen within a history and a context which has the potential to magnify the consequences in a very big way. So when anything happens, the resulting actions or reactions are both directly related to what an officer or officers have done as well as everything else related including what is often perceived as a history of abuse, neglect or bias. At a time when everyone needs to be sorting out exactly what happened in a specific moment (like the shooting of the black youth) , we are having to deal with repercussions connected to that moment and also all of the reverberations it has caused and all of the unfinished stuff connected to it.

I’ve been as astonished as the rest of the world as I look at the images from Ferguson, and a few thoughts come to mind in the most general way.


There is no way to look at what is happening in Ferguson and not see a racial aspect to it. It isn’t just skin color per se, but race in the sense that it is a primary tool by which a white male status quo others people and segregates them into a group of those who are different. On NPR, I heard that the communities surrounding St Louis are some of the most segregated in the country. But in the larger context, it is easy to find a trail of writing regarding how white America is fearful of young black men. The police response to the public outrage which make Ferguson look more like a war zone than an American suburb demonstrate who needs to be fearful of whom.

We must as a country begin to have real dialogue surrounding race which isn’t focused on skin color. Any meaningful dialogue about race has to encompass looking at education disparity, economic opportunity, stigma, and a host of cultural issues that all together are about race. 


There are actually two primary issues we have to notice when we look at Ferguson. There was the initial incident where a young black man was shot by police, and then there was the police response to the outrage expressed by citizens. While connected, these are also separate issues and my fear is that because of how unbelievable it has all been, the two are only seen as enmeshed- as if Ferguson is a single thing rather than a combination of a number of events, actions and reactions. This quote from The New Yorker summarizes it very well in my opinion:

A trivial incident sparks a confrontation, followed by a disproportionate response, then the tableau of grieving parents struggling to maintain composure and the social-media verdicts rendered in absentia, many asking about the culpability of the deceased. Invariably, some self-ordained truth teller will stand up to quote non sequiturs about black-on-black violence.

A part of this jives with my own experience or incidents I’ve followed. Something happens which could be trivial but the police response or interaction is such that the issue escalates, and what didn’t have to be anything really even noticeable becomes a full blown problem, and the word “problem,” is an understatement.


Anyone who is busy talking about the need to “build trust” is trying to avoid the real issues. It isn’t that building trust is unimportant- it is crucially important. A lack of trust isn’t what causes these incidents in the first place. Rather, a lack of trust is the remaining wound of past incidents which have received no real attention. So, yes, let’s look for ways to rebuild trust but not use that as a way to avoid seeking solutions to what causes these incidents to occur and escalate in the first place.


There is the effort to demonize someone. From the police side of it, the effort is to paint the victim as menacing and the shooting as justified. From the community perspective, the effort is to get the officer named and blame him. This desire to blame someone is much like the trust part of it. Finding someone to blame won’t stop these incidents because a single person isn’t responsible.  The entire cycle of issue, confrontation, escalation and reaction- all of these parts of the dynamic need to be addressed, and finding someone to blame stands n the way of a real solution.

Power Over vs Power With

A simplification of feminism is often to understand power relations in terms of this: power over is a style of power used in patriarchy, and power with is a style of power used in feminism. But I think these notions of power apply in any confrontation. Police are using tactics used in Israeli war settings:

In 2010, the Anti-Defamation League publicized that it had sponsored 15 senior law enforcement officials – including from the FBI, NYPD and Boston Police – to take part in an intensive “counter-terrorism training mission” in Israel so that they could share “information, strategies and tactics,” then again in 2011 and 2013. This program, which was first established in 2003, has sent over 115 state, federal and local law enforcement executives to Israel.

However, on Thursday, control of the Ferguson police response was turned over to the Missouri Highway Patrol:

But after the Missouri Highway Patrol, led by black police captain Ron Johnson, took over security on Thursday, the demonstrations took a different turn.

“We are going to have a different approach,” Mr Johnson said at a news conference, adding that he would go to “ground zero” – the area where Mr Brown was killed and also where the convenience store was burned down.

Johnson is described as “walking with the protestors.” This notion of over vs with comes up time and time again in discussions of what we need in a police chief. It sometimes gets fancier names, like “community policing,” but in the end, it involves having the police listen and hear the community and participate with them as opposed to against or over them.


These elements, race, escalation, trust, and blame are all present in Pittsburgh and various incidents that are part of our past here. Al play a role in the interactions between the police and the residents of Pittsburgh but especially those communities where race or some other minority status is used to other them. In other words, Ferguson could be Pittsburgh, or an incident here could spur an issue like there. Who the City hires as a new police chief will be critical to how our future unfolds in terms of community/police relations.

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