Chief Jackson and True Change

The resignation of Tom Jackson, the police chief of Ferguson, has become a goal of many activists and protestors. But while this would certainly be change, it might actually stand in the way of true social progress.

In the great majority of situations in which an unarmed African American is killed by the police, nobody is held accountable – no officer goes to jail, no official loses their job. If Officer Wilson isn’t indicted, then forcing Chief Jackson to resign would be a way of holding at least hold one person accountable for what happened. But removing Chief Jackson wouldn’t necessarily improve anything within the Ferguson police department.

There are many issues facing Ferguson, and indeed the United States. An over-reliance on traffic fines revenue falls disproportionately on poorer, often African American residents. Policies on acceptable use of deadly force give officers significant leeway in deciding when to shoot to kill. Racial profiling – driving while Black – causes friction with the African American community and often real economic harm to the people targeted. There is a tendency to look for a silver bullet, the one large change that will suddenly improve everything. But more realistically progress happens through the cumulative effect of many smaller, incremental changes. These and many other issues will need to be addressed before Ferguson, and the United States, can continue down the path towards being the democracy our founding fathers hoped for.

As strange as this might sound to the peaceful protestors that lived through the teargas and had machine guns pointed at them by the police during the protests, Chief Jackson is likely the best person to bring progress on these issues. In the few years he has been in the job, he has made a significant effort to improve the professionalism and accountability of the Ferguson police department. He has greatly improved the system for recording Citizen Complaints and committed the police department to becoming accredited, which is no small task.

The U.S. Justice Department is currently auditing the Ferguson police force. It will likely conclude that the pace of change needs to be faster and identify additional opportunities for reform. But it will also very likely conclude that Chief Jackson is moving the department in the right direction. Forcing Chief Jackson to resign would slow or even halt progress. Hiring a new police chief in regular circumstances is a drawn out process. Hiring the right one with the situation in Ferguson will likely take many months and then the new chief will take many more months and possibly even years to formulate and implement a strategy for change.

The Mike Brown shooting was Chief Jackson’s first lethal police shooting and civil unrest, and arguably he could have handled parts of the crisis better. One response is certainly to ask for his resignation for all that he got wrong. In the private sector employees who make bad strategic decisions are sometimes let go, but as often are retained, if they seemed to have learned from the experience. Their bosses figure that the company just spent money educating the employee on what not to do and that the employee will be wiser in the future.

This really is the question for Chief Jackson as well – did he learn from the experience? Only time will tell, but it certainly seems like he did. Before the tragic shooting he was on a path of improving the police department. My sense in reading and listening to his comments is that he is even more committed now to bringing improvements, to forging a better Ferguson police department that serves and protects all of our residents. Chief Jackson seems committed to making the reforms that will improve our city and our country.

And we as a nation do need to make these changes. The United States was founded on the belief in the equality of all men and women, the belief that each and every person deserves a chance to choose the course of his or her life – we as a nation have a moral obligation to insure that each and every citizen has equality of opportunity. We as a nation are falling short. In ways large and small, we have made it much harder for a portion of our citizens to participate in our system, caused many to believe that the system is in fact only there to keep them from succeeding. We as a nation have fallen short of the grand concepts captured in our Constitution.

The United States has to move forward – we have to continue on the path that began with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. We have to make real progress towards addressing the conscious and unconscious institutional barriers that make it harder for African Americans to participate in our society. Removing Chief Jackson would be change, but it would likely come at the expense of true social progress.

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