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.
Graphic: Huffington Post