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Ferguson provides another lesson in how not to rebuild police-community relations

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Ferguson provides another lesson in how not to rebuild police-community relations

Updated by German Lopez on August 19, 2015, 9:51 a.m. ET @germanrlopez german.lopez@vox.com

GettyImages-483700348.0.jpgScott Olson/Getty Images

It's not just reporters facing unusual charges for year-old arrests in Ferguson, Missouri — it's protesters, too. And the charges are resurrecting old criticisms of officials in the St. Louis suburb.

A year after hundreds of protesters were arrested while demonstrating — mostly peacefully — in Ferguson over the police shooting of Michael Brown, many demonstrators are being charged and summoned back to court, the Huffington Post's Mariah Stewart and Ryan Reilly reported.

"It appears, as far as we can tell, that everyone is being charged who had been arrested," Anthony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Missouri, told the Huffington Post. "We've been led to believe by the St. Louis County Counselor's Office that that's what they're doing, so that's one big reason, but also we've started to get calls and complaints from a wide variety of people who were arrested on different days, but mostly in August, who are receiving summons. It's people who were arrested in a big group and released without any charges and haven't heard anything — haven't heard anything — for a year and now are receiving a summons."

The arrests were always a major source of criticism against police in Ferguson, with critics characterizing them as an attempt to illegally suppress demonstrations. Many of the arrests were based on a police order that protesters keep moving at all times — a demand that a federal court later deemed unconstitutional. And some of the arrests were so bad that even St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar publicly called them into question.

The Washington Post's Kimberly Kindy and Wesley Lowery reported in October:

The breaking point for Belmar with the Ferguson department's handling of recent protests came last week, when arrests that were captured on video by a CNN freelance journalist showed a loud but otherwise peaceful group of protesters demonstrating outside the Ferguson police station. The protesters were ordered to move from the street to the sidewalk, and as the group raced back, an officer in a brown uniform was recorded saying, "Get them."

Belmar said he watched the video at home and decided that night that his department would take over the crowd-control efforts. He said the incident illustrated problems he hopes to eliminate, in which protesters are arrested based on an arbitrary application of rules and laws, a frustration also held in the halls of the Justice Department.

"They were arrested for violating a noise ordinance. I hadn't noticed us enforcing that," he said. "So I wondered why, all of a sudden, why are we doing this now?"

These types of arrests only sowed more distrust toward police, which was the main reason many protesters were out there in the first place. Not only did demonstrators feel like police abused their power by shooting Brown, but they also felt that police's reaction to the demonstrations — from the deployment of tear gas to petty arrests — violated their constitutional rights to peacefully assemble and show their discontent. And now, St. Louis county officials are reopening these old wounds by bringing up charges for the year-old arrests.

"It's almost like it started to scab over for a lot of people, and now filing these charges is like picking the scab off and re-victimizing people whose constitutional rights were violated in the first place," Rothert told the Huffington Post.

As I wrote before, the distrust isn't just bad from a public relations standpoint — it also makes the police's job much harder, since it makes the community less likely to cooperate with law enforcement during future investigations.

Concerns over the distrust toward police are so prominent that the federal government has stepped in to help law enforcement repair community relations. Last year, the Justice Department launched the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice to promote community cooperation and reduce bias in policing. The Obama administration has also encouraged the use of police body cameras and better data collection of police shootings to increase transparency and accountability. And the administration limited local and state police departments' access to military-grade equipment to address concerns raised by overly aggressive police tactics during the protests in Ferguson.

But by bringing charges for old arrests that many people — even the county police chief and a federal court — saw as unnecessary, the county government is reminding Ferguson and the rest of the nation why law enforcement lost the public's trust to begin with.


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1. by now, the entire police force should have been replaced with AA humans recruited out of Atlanta and Chicago and Detroit. What happened?

2. Even the 'summoned' folk show up to court on the appointed day - wouldn't it have been just grand for the judge to dismiss the case; if, in fact, the accused actually showed up? I think so !

Sometimes my language usage seems confusing - please feel free to 'read it twice', just in case !
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