Five days ago, an unarmed eighteen year old, Michael Brown, was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. As is all too commonly the situation, Mr. Brown was African American and the police officer who did the shooting (as with most of the police in Ferguson) was white. An investigation is on-going, but the reports of what happened are disturbing enough that there have been protests since Mr. Brown’s death. For five nights those protests turned violent and ugly. Police officers have fired tear gas into the crowds. They have arrested people. Police Officers in combat gear faced off against demonstrators in scenes that looked more like something from apartheid South Africa or the Jim Crow South. From my vantage point many miles, and several states away, it looked like the police response was inciting violence, not quelling it.
That changed today when the governor of Missouri put Capt. Johnson, of the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge. What a difference a day can make. Johnson is using basic dispute resolution techniques we all recognize. He is listening. He is talking with, not at, the demonstrators. He is standing and walking with them. And, he is acknowledging mistakes. One man asked Johnson what he would say to his niece who had been tear-gassed during the demonstrations. Johnson didn’t say, “well, those men weren’t under my command” (which they weren’t). He didn’t say, “well, that won’t happen now” (which we can hope it won’t). He gave a simple, not qualified, apology: “Tell her Capt. Johnson is sorry and he apologizes.”
It is not surprising that listening, talking, and an apology can go a long way to diffuse a conflict. It is surprising it has taken five days to do these very simple things. I can only hope that today’s change of tone and actions by the new police captain in charge in Ferguson, Missouri, will help to bring peace as the shooting is investigated.