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Editorial: Missouri governor takes appropriate step in Ferguson

Published 9:38am Friday, August 15, 2014

The problem in Ferguson, Mo., is self-evident. The police department has a problem with its workplace culture. It is at war with the very people it is supposed to serve and protect, and it was that way before unarmed black teenager Michael Brown Jr. was shot by a police officer reportedly 10 times in broad daylight, prompting nightly protests this past week.

In fact, the difference between quality police officers and troubling police officers often comes down to the workplace environment from which they were dispatched. How do they view their public? Are they a boys’ club of guys who love to swap stories of using force or are they a professional, accountable workforce well-trained in the rights of Americans?

Most police departments in cities big and small are quite oriented toward the communities they serve. Whether it is Houston, Texas, or Albert Lea, Minn., the officers seek to serve and protect the residents who live there, even if it means at times doing menial jobs like knocking on the door of an elderly widow to check on her for a relative who is out of town, assisting with pedestrian crossings on school days or chit-chatting with patrons of local bars. It’s not the exciting police work we see on television, but it is an unsung-yet-noble duty.

What’s more, quality law enforcement agencies continue to receive training, learning the up-to-date techniques and understanding best practices. A professional policing environment grows.

The police officers who join professional, community-oriented police forces join in the culture and, no surprise here, they become the kind of police officers quite reserved in the need to use force because they see people — even the troublemakers — as people, not as enemies. They are the smart ones who keep a pack of cigarettes in the glove compartment because offering a smoke can be an easier way to calm an unruly person down than a thump on the head.

Reading accounts of how the Ferguson and St. Louis County police treated the people of Ferguson revealed that the police and the public both had an us-versus-them situation and rights were being trampled on without concerns, which leads to no surprises when police officers went so far as to arrest journalists exercising their First Amendment-guaranteed rights to freedom of the press and assembly. We weren’t there to witness the situation in person, but from all accounts, the arrests and the many other accounts of mistreatment imply an out-of-hand police force in Ferguson.

Someone had to do something.

We applaud the decision by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday to place the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge of Ferguson, as the local police forces were doing more to stir the pot of unrest in that city than to calm it. Even President Barack Obama expressed concern publicly Thursday about the actions of the Ferguson and St. Louis County police.

The governor’s actions came as we were writing this editorial Thursday. We had planned to call for a more professional police force to supplant the Ferguson police. Nixon and his advisers apparently recognized the same need and took action. We look forward to the Missouri state troopers not only restoring order but earning the respect of the citizenry — who no doubt wish to be treated as citizens, not as enemy combatants.