When Ethics Becomes Impossible: Captain Johnson’s Ferguson “Solution”

Ron Johnson

Yesterday,  Ferguson, Missouri’s newly appointed police commander, Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, walked with those protesting the shooting of African American teenager Michael Brown.The police shooting in Ferguson this week and its aftermath became an instant Ethics Train Wreck, its carnage seeded by tragedy, local tensions, growing distrust of police nationwide, worsening race relations exacerbated by Democrats and the media resorting to race-baiting to stifle criticism of the Obama administration, as well as such episodes as Occupy confrontations with police in Oakland and the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman fiasco.

Johnson’s actions calmed what had been escalating violence, with community protests spilling over into looting, irresponsible and inflammatory statements being made by both police and protesters, and an excessive, military-style response by St.Louis police that treated sometimes over-enthusiastic demonstrating as if it was Rodney King-style rioting. What Johnson did worked, in other words, and that’s both the best and the worst that can be said about it. Ethically, it was the best available option. When a situation reaches the ethics chaos stage that Ferguson has, however, this is rough utilitarianism at best.

“We all want justice. We all want answers,” said Johnson. The fact that I nobody can say with certainty what “we” means in that statement illustrates his problem, and the town’s. Ferguson is now divided into two warring sides, both of which see a conflict in “us” vs. “them” terms, The police appear to be, or are being portrayed as being, or in fact are hostile to the African American community. The African American community appears to be, or is being portrayed as being, or in fact is hostile to police. When Johnson, an African American now leading the police marches with protesters asserting that crimes have been committed by the entity he now leads, there is an obvious and bewildering conflict of interest and confusion of role that cannot avoid, like all conflicts, undermining trust…somewhere, everywhere.

What does Johnson’s walking with the protesters mean? Does it mean that he has determined that police were at fault in the shooting? That is what most of those he walked with believe. Does it mean that before the “answers” are available—an investigation is ongoing—he has chosen sides, and determined that those under his command committed a crime? Does it mean that he believes Ferguson police committed a racist crime, a hate crime? Many, perhaps most, of those he walked with believe that too. 

Does it mean that he is walking as a black man in a conflict between his race and his profession? If that is how police interpret his conduct? If he later speaks as an advocate for police, will African Americans regard his symbolic support as a sham, and disabling him as a force for peace in the community?

My reaction to Johnson’s appointment and protest participation was that the sequence amounted to an official acknowledgment that the police are racist, before the facts have been determined. If the new commander had been white and marched with protesters, the message may have been clearer, less provocative and more manageable.

It is likely that Johnson’s approach was the best of available options, because previous mistakes on all sides made better, more ethical ones impossible. A series of unethical decisions—a botched arrest, reckless choices by the victim, insensitive response by authorities, inflammatory racial rhetoric by community leaders, unsupported assumptions, violence, a hair-trigger Justice Department reacting to the incident as if it were a civil rights matter before there was any evidence this is true, and the arrival of Al Sharpton, which is the same as an accusation that white people are killing innocent blacks again—had shattered trust in every direction. Decisive action became mandatory to mitigate harm. The decision Johnson made has serious ethical flaws itself, but this is what happens when so many opportunities to get an event on an ethical path have been squandered. The path is no longer there to be traveled, and whatever new one is forged will be more uneven, and more unethical, than that road untaken.

All we can be sure of now is that Captain Johnson is a brave man. Let’s hope he is also a talented leader and genius as well, because that is what it will take to avoid the consequences of the conflict he just created for himself.


Pointer: Fred

Facts: USA Today, Huffington Post 1, 2

Graphic: Huffington Post

35 thoughts on “When Ethics Becomes Impossible: Captain Johnson’s Ferguson “Solution”

  1. I know that his actions look like he has taken the side of the protesters and is tacitly indicting the police. I have to say, though, that when I heard what he was doing, it seemed to me to be an act of solidarity for the desire for justice, whatever that amounts to. It didn’t occur to me that he was “taking sides.” It didn’t occur to me that he was indicting the police force.

    I figured that maybe he figured that he, as a policeman, would be able to go back and speak with and deal with the police in an orderly way, as the new person in charge. There was no way to do that with the community without first showing his interest in being with them, being one of them.

    Of course, it all might have looked differently if he were white instead of black. But the only way this was going to work, in a 60-percent African American town where the 55-person police force contained only 3 African American officers, was for the new leader to be African American.

    • “Justice” is like “comprehensive immigration reform,” though, right? It’s code. It assumes that there has been a RACIAL injustice, based on the fact of the races of the parties involved, as in “justice for Trayvon.”

      • At this point, there is no evidence in either direction that any of the incidents were racially motivated. However, there is a demographic component that can’t be ignored, regardless of motivations, and therefore it must be part of the resolution.

        My husband, who is from Texas (i.e., The South), is certain that underlying racial tension led to the events in Ferguson. While media refer to the St. Louis suburb as a Midwestern town, my husband sneers at that label, saying it IS a Southern town, and that racism is still a serious problem throughout the South. And that a 60% African American population with a 94.5% white police force is bound to create an unhealthy “justice” environment.

          • Sure, they CAN be fair. But can you determine if the hiring policies in the police department were fair in the first place? No, and neither can I. I am not presuming racism (although I am tempted, given the geography). I am saying that these things must be taken into account objectively as possibly causative, in order to reach a completely objective resolution. US track record in the area of race relations among the general populace has not been stellar. And I mean this to include all of the races.

            • Are we talking about hiring practices, or police discrimination in law enforcement? I thought the latter was the issue in Ferguson. In communities where blacks distrust the police, there is a disincentive for blacks to become police officers. Blacks who are police officers sometimes discriminate against blacks because of a strong criminal element in the black community. Either way, though, the only fair approach is to make no prior assumptions whatsoever. Yeah, without knowing the facts, I’d be inclined to assume that 1) the teen was stopped for “walking while black” and 2) foolishly resisted the officer’s authority, because kids are irrational. But as pure speculation, that all needs to be kept in the garbage bin of my mind, and you do NOT want to go in there…

  2. The decision to put him in charge temporarily was the smart one as it makes the optics good. It gives hope to those protesting that a true investigation will happen and the marching sends the message to all that peaceful demonstrations will be allowed.

    Your analysis of “we” above interested me because my take was completely different. Police are servants of the people. I took “we” to mean that ALL people are looking for answers. It didn’t even occur to me to read it differently. I’m not saying that I am right.

    I’m disappointed that you would use this tragedy as another attempt to throw stones at Democrats and the media. No doubt they (especially the media) will talk about this endlessly, but nether of those groups created the situation in Ferguson. Having an almost entirely white police force for a majority black town is insane in this day and age. This was a powder keg ready to blow — and no blame should fall on Democratic propaganda or the media for this.

    I do feel bad for the police officer in question if the shooting was justified though, because the police department’s hiring policy and military-style response to the demonstrations will forever permit people to question his innocence.

    • Thanks, Beth. I wanted to say some of these things but would never have said them as well as you. I was annoyed especially at the jab at the Democrats.

    • Although I agree that the Ferguson situation may have been a powder keg waiting to explode, but can you not agree that the Al Sharptons of the world foster race-based controversy — it is in fact his “business” — and even the Obama Administration has resorted to playing the race card when it needs to. White America elected Obama: can’t blame his failures on racism, but even they are beginning to do so. SO, a mention of the Al Sharptons and Democrats’ campaign to make racism an ongoing national issue even when it’s not, is a fair mention. I do not believe that Marshall is in the business of “throwing stones” at Democrats and the media. You might note that out of the entire post, only one mention of playing the race card was made. The rest, and there was a lot there, dealt with the specific issue at hand. You accuse Marshall of being unfair: look at your own response in terms of fairness.

      Overall, though, we know there are pockets of racial discord in various communities around the country, and racism is NOT dead. But it’s racism on BOTH SIDES, you know, and not only with the police.

      • Sure, there is racism on both sides, what does that have to do with anything?

        My response to Jack was on one specific point, I don’t have to comment line by line on his whole post.

    • No, I will continue remind people that the Democrats deliberately took that low road the second Barack Obama ran for office, and relentlessly used race-baiting and accusations of racism to stifle legitimate criticism and to build the narrative that it was conservative and GOP racism that foiled Obama’s noble efforts. I have a file of all the columns, pundits, celebrities and politicians who have flogged that horse for six years, including Holder, Clinton, Obama himself, David Axelrod, Harry Reed, Nacy Pelosi, Sen. Durbin, Howard Dean, the Congressional Black Caucus, the New York Times, MSNBC, Oprah, Morgan Freeman, and many others. It is vitally important because it has done terrible, cynical damage to US race relations for pure electoral advantage, energizing the “base”, with fear-mongering at its worse. A black President should have been a huge step forward for race relations, and instead they have declined precipitously. It is a factor in Ferguson, a major one, and every objective American should be furious about it—this Democratic tactic is every bit as despicable and damaging to the nation as the Republican “Southern Strategy” of the Seventies, and it is undeniable.

      Nope, I will always reference it, because it is wrong, it is destructive, it offends me deeply, and because I predicted it in 2008, and it came to pass. And no ethical progressive or Democrat, and you and Patrice are both, should give the party a pass on this.

      • Racism is a factor in Ferguson right now because there is an all-white police force. You don’t need race-baiting to inflame a black populace when something like this happens. Just about every city recognizes that you need a police force that reflects (as much as possible) the citizens that they are policing. Most cities even require that the police force reside within city limits.

        The media did not hire a white police force. The media did not respond to protests with unneeded force. The only blame for this situation is the governing body of Ferguson who let this hiring policy take place and the police who obviously are ill-trained in responding to protests. Will the media and certain Dems exploit this? No doubt — and THEN you should write a post discussing it. Right now, the only analysis should be of the police and the administration in Ferguson that permitted this to happen.

        • “Racism is a factor in Ferguson right now because there is an all-white police force.

          So an American police force in an American community can’t exercise authority?

          You are the one claiming color of the police force matters…I think you are the racist in this case.

        • Huh? Why should the race of a police force make any difference at all? Why are whites presumed to be bigoted? Most of the DC police force is black, and I don’t feel intimidated by or discriminated against by them..

          It’s already being exploited. With no evidence of racial bias, the Justice Department should have stayed out. Why is Sharpton there? Why are there protests? Why are Howard students, many miles away, demanding “justice,” presuming a lack of same? Can you honestly say the Martin-Zimmerman rhetoric didn’t fertilize this?

  3. I live in St. Louis and have been waiting for a post on this subject from you.

    To me, this is just another instance of an ethics disaster in the media. The rush to judgement/break a story has trumped the importance of journalistic integrity. Look no further than the presumption of fact that the killing of Michael Brown was racially charged (there is still no evidence to back this claim) to conclude that the media looks for any excuse to insert a narrative, stir controversy, and/or push an agenda. And they do this all the time. Though the investigation of this incident is still in its baby steps, the officer was arrested, tried, and executed in the court of mass media in the name of social justice even though we have little to no actual facts to reference; their over-arching themes are all that’s necessary for this story.

    Do you remember when NBC edited the Zimmerman 911 tape to make him sound racist? What producer with even a shred of honesty or sense of ethics would even allow something like that to air? It’s because getting the facts right in a case doesn’t matter to media folks. Reporting the story and not being part of the story doesn’t matter. What matters is selling.

    My favorite scene in South Park begins with a reporter, wishing to air a controversial ‘hot new story’, walking in on a brother-sister news anchor team (who, of course, engage in incest. It’s South Park). The anchors, arguing with the reporter, state, ” we’re supposed to report the story, not make it more violent.” After threatening the anchors, the reporter justifies airing the ethically bankrupt story by stating “Having a bloodbath on Black Friday is good for the news. It’s good for us.”

    • I agree, Josh, and it’s not just the media. Howard students, with no more information than we have, rallied for “justice” for Brown. And of course the conduct of Holder’s ultra-political and racially biased Justice Department tacitly tars the incident as a race-based killing, which it may turn out to have been. But this is all a rush to judgment, tearing the races apart, and encouraging division and conflict.

  4. So I guess it’s not Holder or the Democrats (careful, your bias is showing):

    By Dan Balz August 14 at 5:29 PM
    The killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., has produced a rare and surprisingly unified response across the ideological spectrum, with Republicans and Democrats joining to decry the tactics of the city’s police force in the face of escalating protests.

    Most notably, the reactions reflect a shift away from the usual support and sympathy conservatives typically show for law enforcement in such situations. Although possibly unique to the circumstances of the events in Missouri this week, the changing reaction on the right is clear evidence of a rising and more vocal libertarian wing within the Republican Party.

    No better sign of that came Thursday than in an article by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) published on Time’s Web site.

    “If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager, there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off,” he wrote. “But, I wouldn’t have expected to be shot.”

    In his piece, Paul criticized what he called the growing militarization of local police forces. “There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace,” he wrote, “but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response.”

    • What does that prove, exactly? Libertarians are any cop, and Holder and the Democrats are race-baiting. Two different issues. No bias whatsoever. And if you think what Rand Paul says or thinks has any influence over what happens in Ferguson, I have a bridge to sell you.

      • I’m a Libertarian, but I see the dangers of the Leftist attack against “militarized” police forces.

        I see the problem with it, but I don’t see the same problem the Leftists see.

        Wait. You’ll see the media slowly push the narrative that the problem is one of lacking oversight. You’ll see the narrative pushed that a national oversight needs to be established on local police forces…eventually you’ll see a push for national CONTROL and administration and centralized direction…

        Then instead of the solution involving de-“militarization”, the “solution” is collectivization. And that eventually we’ll have just as militirized of a police force, but under central Leftist control, as before….

        Keep eyes open.

    • Ferguson took off because of the easy description: “Unarmed teen with hands up is shot multiple times by police.”

      With that description, no race is necessary to create unrest. It’s why this issue has such broad attention among the right as the left. The issue as the right sees it isn’t about race, but about improper use of force by police and it is exacerbated by the subsequent days of militarized police and their actions proving the point. I get that they had to have a force out to get peace and stop riots, but that’s not an open reason to use all force for any reason. The treatment of journalists has been appalling.

      • Ethics alarms are going off all in my head as I say this, but I note that the black response to almost all situations like this is, “A black kid was shot by a cop (it doesn’t even necessarily have to be a white cop)!! Let’s go and loot that Korean market/furniture store/clothing store/laundry/electronics store/wherever in OUR OWN neighborhood.” Somehow, that doesn’t seem to me to be much of a solution to the problem.

        • Ethics alarms are going off all in my head as I say this, but I note that the black response to almost all situations like this is, “A black kid was shot by a cop (it doesn’t even necessarily have to be a white cop)!! Let’s go and loot that Korean market/furniture store/clothing store/laundry/electronics store/wherever in OUR OWN neighborhood.” Somehow, that doesn’t seem to me to be much of a solution to the problem.
          Dragon, are you trying to say that ten pairs of Nikes can’t soothe the savage beast?
          What about ten pairs of Nikes, two Iphones and a wide screen tv?

        • From what I’ve heard from one of my friends who still lives there, a lot of the looters aren’t even Ferguson residents, but thugs from the surrounding area who came in just for an excuse to wreck havoc; in the more recent incidents, a lot of the people who came to protest ended up spending most of their time trying to protect local businesses from looters.

          And hence why police are important; even fully justified protests risk carrying a lot of members who are just in it for the chance to start some chaos.

          • Yeah, I still remember Katrina. THOSE looters were local-grown. ‘Course, it didn’t help that the cops (those that stayed) were so corrupt they made their Mayor look honest.

    • A similar incident happened at almost the same time in Salt Lake City. What things make the Ferguson incident major news and SLC not?
      The difference is, the Ferguson case has all of the lovely elements necessary to incite racial hatred and get the “downtrodden” their rightful piece of the pie, while giving the hater white population a good kick in the teeth.

      Al Sharpton and cronies have been working their asses off trying to get black and liberal white people to care about about the NYC Eric Garner choke out case but I guess no one cares since he was going to die from his fat anyway.

      Now with the Ferguson story we have all of the juicy details :black angelic kid on his way to college, unarmed, peace and law lover that he was, gunned down by a white cop, for no other reason except that he was black.
      Even his friend said so.
      He was DEFINITELY NOT doing anything wrong.
      Isn’t that what they are saying?

      But don’t worry, help is on the way: faux lawyer/leader Ben Crump is on the scene, making inflammatory statements and stirring up trouble, just like he did for Treyvon Martin, another angel-child, murdered by a white man.
      Those White Apartheid Devils of the Ferguson local government have finally appointed a black man to oversee the situation, and the president, too, has weighed in with his extraordinarily intelligent and informed opinion.

      And if that isn’t enough, NOW when you go out tonight to riot and loot, there are porta-potties for you to use and coffee and donuts as well.
      Sorry we didn’t get to it sooner.
      Whitey is here to serve you.

      Whitey is also sorry, look how he squirms during the press conferences.
      It is just a matter of time until the country is in an uproar over race and the really neat part is that no one will be talking about Iraq, the IRS, VA, and other pesky problems that make Dear Leader look like the chump he is.

      P.S.: Don’t worry about all of the looting and burning, we know you were mad.
      P.P.S: Please don’t get mad at us when we show you store surveillance video of your golden boy holding up a store.
      We’re sorry.

  5. I want to know where Ben Crump was while a 70% black town was being governed and protected by a 96% white mob
    Someone who genuinely cares about black rights and so on should know about the situation and together with residents working to change it.

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