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'Policing Ferguson, Policing America': The Unrest Over The Death Of Michael Brown


We're going to spend some time now marking the third anniversary of the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. On August 9, 2014, Brown was shot and killed by Police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., just outside of St. Louis.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Grief and anger in a St. Louis area community today after a teen was shot and killed by police.

WOLF BLITZER: Michael Brown. He was unarmed, correct?


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: This is not the Middle East. The police in these dark pictures are throwing tear gas at neighbors in Ferguson, Mo.

ROBERT MCCULLOCH: No probable cause exists to file any charge against Officer Wilson.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He got away with murder. He murdered Michael Brown.

SMITH: Brown was unarmed. Officer Wilson said Brown was charging at him and that he had fired in self-defense. No charges were filed against Wilson, but the case led to nationwide protests against police brutality. It also sparked a nationwide conversation about the relationship between police and the communities they're sworn to serve. The Department of Justice later released a report, saying the Ferguson Police Department and the courts had routinely and systematically discriminated against African-Americans and created an atmosphere that undermined the trust of African-American residents.

So today, we thought we'd gather a few voices to reflect on this anniversary and look at how those events shaped Ferguson and the country then and now. Let's start with then. Thomas Jackson was Ferguson's police chief when Michael Brown was shot. Afterwards, Jackson came under intense scrutiny from civil rights groups, the media and, as we mentioned, the Justice Department. In a new book called "Policing Ferguson, Policing America: What Really Happened And What The Country Can Learn From It," Jackson gives his perspective on the events in Ferguson and writes about what he saw in the first few days after Brown's shooting.

THOMAS JACKSON: I was in total disbelief at what I was seeing and the way it was being represented. And, by the way, the politicians just threw the police under the bus right away. So they criticized us for using tear gas, but when you've got a violent crowd that's - where people are shooting guns, throwing rocks and urine and things like that, that's a deadly force situation for everybody. And tear gas is the safest way to disperse a crowd without hurting anybody. The other choices, you know, being nightsticks and things.

And if you think about it, we're being accused of police brutality against minorities, but the police didn't hurt anybody during all those months of almost daily riots. There were no - no one was injured by the police officers. But we were criticized for being militarized, when all the officers were doing was protecting themselves, you know, against rocks and bottles and bullets.

SMITH: Well, how do you explain then the demonstrations and the riots and just the big uprising that happens by many residents of Ferguson?

JACKSON: Actually, that uprising - when I saw the QuikTrip catch fire on Sunday night...

SMITH: That you said was kind of like the heart of the town?

JACKSON: Yeah. When that happened, I knew that my residents weren't doing that. They didn't light that on fire. We had people come in from all over the country and ultimately all over the world because out over social media went the story that there was a man standing in the middle of the street - a black man - who was shot down in cold blood by a police officer while the young man was surrendering and asking, you know, to not shoot.

The story was not true, but it went over social media all over the world really quickly. And people believed it. And if you believe that that thing happened, then it's an outrageous thing. And people were outraged. And they came to Ferguson by the thousands and ultimately destroyed a big part of the city.

SMITH: But a lot of the people protesting were from Ferguson. It was also a grassroots protest.

JACKSON: You know, I talked to the Ferguson protesters particularly. I knew a lot of them. And they believed that we needed an indictment against Darren Wilson. They believed the story that went out that it was an unjustified shooting. That's what they were protesting for. That's what they told me. That's what their sign said, you know, indict Darren Wilson. That's what they wanted.

SMITH: I mean, we've spoken to many of them. And they did also talk about feeling singled out or feeling unfairly treated and targeted by police.

JACKSON: And that's a horrible thing for people to feel that way. It wasn't rampant in Ferguson, I can just tell you that because I was out there. I mean, Ferguson is a small - it's six square miles. It's got 20,000 people. So everybody had access to me. You know, I'd attended every single city council meeting. You know, I was out in the community at all the events. I'd go to the farmer's market on Saturday. It's not like people couldn't just walk up to me anytime.

SMITH: So I have one more question for you about history and about legacy. Ferguson really became about an issue that we are facing as a nation. Do you see a positive contribution of some kind in that way?

JACKSON: If anything, it brought a lot of people together with similar feelings or experiences or sentiments about race relations. And it really got people all over the country talking about it. And people are talking about it much, much more than they were before. People aren't holding back anymore. So I think people put their emotions aside and start - and are talking very openly about the issue. But the fact that there's so much conversation about race is a good thing because so many people experience it or see it as still something that America is struggling to overcome.

SMITH: And what about the police?

JACKSON: Yeah, the police - what's come out of this and - which is helpful - is we're talking much more about bias-based police training and getting officers to understand, you know, even though you can say you've never mistreated anybody on the basis of race, people all have hidden biases. And it's important that we recognize those and recognize those in other people and, you know, be able to treat people with dignity. So I think there's more discussion about it than there was before, and there was quite a bit before.

SMITH: That was former Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson. His book, "Policing Ferguson, Policing America" is out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.