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SPSSI Members Discuss Developments in Ferguson, MO


Alvin Thomas 
The University of Michigan

For black communities, deadly interactions with the police have a phenomenologically different meaning than for most other groups, and the meaning is fraught with historical import. In the past three decades, those interactions have included notable cases such as Michael Brown, Kendrick McDade, Oscar Grant and Rodney King. But in truth these cases go back to the Civil Rights era and beyond. This history of racial disparities in the justice system continues to have implications for the present. A recent survey suggests that black youth are twice as likely as other youth to be harassed by the police, and fewer black youth (at 44 percent) trust the police compared to youth of any other race, and especially compared to white youth (at 71 percent).

Negative police interactions represent additional risk for youth who may already live in challenging neighborhoods. According to the office of the Surgeon General, neighborhood risk is associated with psychological problems including depression, anxiety, PTSD; and poor physical health. However, we also know that collective/community efficacy can ameliorate the negative effect of risks. This same community efficacy that we see at work in Fergusson, MO and other communities across the US like Detroit, MI., may represent a source of bridge-building between police and the community. Properly structured endeavors like police-community youth groups and engaging police as active community members have evidenced varying levels of success in other communities. Systems with transparent and independent checks and balances may help address abuses of power and instill community confidence in the police. More racially diverse police departments that are representative of the communities that they are meant to protect and serve can only reduce racial disparities in police-community interactions, distrust of the police, and the senseless killing of black youth. As genuine members of the community, the police may be more likely to protect and serve without the deliberate influence of race.

Return to Ferguson landing page here.