By RON FANFAIR
Forging relationships based on trust with the communities you serve is an essential and critical component of policing, Missouri State Highway Patrol captain Ronald Johnson reminded law enforcement officers at the 23rd Association of Black Law Enforcers (ABLE) awards gala last Saturday night.
Johnson was at the centre of the Ferguson unrest last August following the police shooting of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown.
“As law enforcement, we must go back to the foundation of our profession of getting to know the community that we serve,” said Johnson, who is a lifelong St. Louis resident. “When a community says, ‘I don’t know my police chief and I have never met a police officer in my community’, then how can we ask for their trust? We must be those things to our community that we are before we put on that uniform. We must not allow this job to harden us, but it must always continue to grow us to be better peacekeepers.
“Community policing can no longer be just a buzzword, but a word that defines a commitment to making lives better. When we are in a restaurant, we must not only speak to the well-dressed person, but also the young man in a hoodie, the poor, the homeless, the stranger and even those that see us as enemies.”
With tensions rising after Brown’s death, Missouri governor Jay Nixon pulled St. Louis County Police out of Ferguson and assigned Johnson to co-ordinate law enforcement agencies.
He admitted none of his police training prepared him for the new challenge.
“I decided at that moment not to think like a trooper, but rather all those things I am – a man, a Black man, a husband, a father, a son, a sibling, a friend – before I placed on that uniform,” said Johnson who became a law enforcement officer in 1987 after graduating from college. “It was then that I knew I needed to walk down the streets of Ferguson. I needed to hear the voices which were the raindrops of the storm. I also wanted those assembled to know that I cared about them and would listen to their voices. Walking down that road would make some in law enforcement and the public view me as a traitor, as a coward or even maybe courageous. As I look back, I can see how perception can justify all three.
“But as law enforcement officers, we must walk down that middle of the road to ensure an unbiased application of the law. What came out of walking down that street was nothing that I had planned or knew would happen. But people began to define it as community policing…I realized that just walking among the citizens was what was being appreciated. I encountered those who had been called thugs by some who did not appreciate or want me walking among the crowd assembled. Using the word thug is easy, but what are we willing to do to change behaviour? I didn’t see those young men as thugs that day and not now, but rather men that needed guidance and wanted hope. I was inspired by the young people who stood not to accept that change was coming but demanded the promises of our land of equality and justice and education and economics and all other fields of human endeavour.”
Johnson said the shooting of Brown was not the catalyst for the violence that erupted in Ferguson.