Ferguson and the Unwritten Contract between Police and the Community

by Jack Dunphy

A few thoughts on the recent events in Ferguson, Mo. So far we have only been given the merest details about the incident, and most of what we know — or think we know — has been provided by a young man who says he was walking with Brown when they were confronted by the officer. They were walking down the middle of the street, he says, when the officer drove up and told them to “get the f*** out of the street.” They didn’t, and moments later Michael Brown was dead.

I recall a television interview with Columbia University professor John McWhorter (it may have been on the Charlie Rose Show; I couldn’t find a reference to it online) in which he described being stopped by police in Oakland, Calif. McWhorter was walking across a street and jaywalked in front of a police car, an offense so trifling he was surprised when the officer stopped him. I can’t recall all of the details, but while McWhorter was upset by the experience, he came to understand it later. 

He described the unwritten contract between the police and the community in places like Oakland, where one would think a petty affront to the commonweal like jaywalking should hardly warrant a police officer’s attention. But this unwritten contract, as McWhorter described it, places demands on both the police and the community. Under the contract, police officers ignore minor infractions like jaywalking, but they expect the community not to flout the law, even a minor one, in their presence. Thus when McWhorter jaywalked, the officer took it as a violation of the contract and a challenge, one that could not be ignored.

I spent many years as a cop in South-Central Los Angeles, and this contract exists there as it does in Oakland and any other high-crime area you could name. If I drove my black-and-white down Central Avenue and saw a man walking against a red light, he knew that once he saw me, the contract demanded that he run the rest of the way, or at least increase the speed of his walking as an acknowledgement that he was breaking the law and, at least in theory, was deserving of a ticket. My end of the contract was to drive on, perhaps with a wave to the man to demonstrate that I appreciated his effort to honor the contract. These types of interactions take place thousands of times a day in cities across the country, including, I suspect, in Ferguson.

When the Ferguson officer drove onto the block and saw Michael Brown and his friend walking down the middle of the street, he expected them to move to the sidewalk as soon as they realized a police car was approaching. When they didn’t, the officer took it as a violation of the contract, even a challenge. Which in a way it was.

What happened after that has yet to be fully revealed, but if it’s true that Michael Brown was 35 feet away from the officer when he was shot, I can’t imagine a set of facts that would justify it. 

Still, even if the shooting is as unjustified as some are claiming, how this translates into a license to pillage the neighborhood escapes me.

— “Jack Dunphy” is the pseudonym of a police officer in Southern California.