NYT: Learning From the Ferguson Tragedy

new york times (400)

Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont and others respond to the racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo.

To the Editor:

The New York Times and other media have focused enormous attention on the tragedy in Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed black youth was shot and killed by a police officer. Unfortunately, there has been very little discussion about the economic and social tragedy that has befallen an entire generation of young black men.

Today, more than 5.5 million young Americans have either dropped out of high school or graduated from high school and have no jobs. Today, while youth unemployment is 20 percent, African-American youth unemployment is 35 percent, and in the St. Louis area, it is even higher than that.

Incredibly, there are estimates that if present trends continue, one of every three black American men born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.

If there is anything that we can learn from the Ferguson tragedy, it should be a recognition that we need to address the extraordinary crises facing black youths. That means, among other things, a major jobs program, job training and vastly improved educational opportunities.

U.S. Senator from Vermont
Burlington, Vt., Aug. 20, 2014

To the Editor:

The tragic death of Michael Brown and the responses to it have brought a long-simmering distrust in Missouri’s criminal justice system to a boil. Two concrete actions can go a long way toward easing tensions and moving us closer to the ultimate goal of “equal justice under law.”

First, Robert P. McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor, whose father, a police officer, was tragically killed in the line of duty by a black man in 1964, must have no involvement with charging decisions and/or sentencing decisions related to the police officer who killed Mr. Brown. If either side could so very easily have Mr. McCulloch disqualified as a juror under his circumstances, it cannot possibly be just or fair for him to make charging or sentencing decisions in this case.

Regardless of who initiates the action, the appointment of a politically neutral, highly respected special prosecutor is essential.

Second, there is obviously a widespread perception of substantial racial inequities in Missouri’s criminal justice system. The mere fact that African-Americans are incarcerated at about six times the rate of whites is enough to justify the appointment of a politically neutral, highly respected blue-ribbon commission to identify the nature and extent of racial inequities and the steps that will most likely resolve them.

St. Peters, Mo., Aug. 21, 2014

The writer is a lawyer.

To the Editor:

Police training must be changed from “shoot to kill” to protect police officers to “shoot or act to disable or stop” unless the officer is in clear mortal danger. Sometimes this will mean retreating or using nonlethal force.

Police training overwhelmingly emphasizes officer protection to the point of discouraging “shoot to wound” and allowing or even requiring use of hollow point bullets, formerly outlawed as too destructive of human tissue.

Otherwise, police officers when scared or excited will continue to empty their guns against suspects, unnecessarily killing hundreds where less than deadly force is appropriate.

As a lawyer representing innocent people shot at by the police and as a former general counsel to the New York State Crime Victims Board (1977-87), I have seen this scenario play out over the last 30 years. Equipping the police routinely with military-style weapons is likely to result in even more death and injury to innocent civilians as well as to more criminal suspects.

Sarasota, Fla., Aug. 21, 2014