Events in Ferguson expose US law enforcement's longstanding abandonment of its founding ethical principles. Rebuilding relationships with the people we've harmed won't come easily.
The Ferguson riots are the latest high-profile example of the deep schism between American law enforcement and the communities it serves. This schism has been made demonstrably worse by the way the drug war has blurred the police mission. The community policing mission should always be fundamentally different to that of the military—yet that often hasn’t been the case, thanks in large part to wrongheaded policies put in place decades ago.
The long history of racial disparity in the enforcement of our drug policies was greatly exacerbated by the architect of the modern war on drugs, Richard Nixon. His vision was to create a crime- and violence-free society—but his false belief was that black heroin addicts were the primary cause of crime in our communities.
Nixon once stated to his aide H.R. Haldeman, “you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
Nixon’s dream of devising a criminal justice system that targets communities of color through the mechanism of our drug policies was achieved. According to the ACLU report “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” among myriad other sources, law enforcement’s attempt to eradicate drug use in America has hit communities of color the hardest.
Clearly, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown on August 9 and the ensuing riots in Ferguson are about many different things. But the drug war’s militarization of our cops is the fuel that ignited this conflagration—and continues to spark many others in communities where aggressive policing and harsh tactics, such as “stop-and-frisk,” are wrongly believed to be an effective tool to curb crime.