The nation is deeply contemplating the serious problems in Ferguson, and ostensibly trying to identify the appropriate responses.   There is a simple, pro-business, pro-community strategy for Ferguson that would enable government and community leaders to pivot from damage control to community improvement.    

Ferguson can be transformed from a symbol of the nation’s problems to a symbol of America’s potential.  What is needed is for  the right leaders from the community and government to make a sober assessment of the problems, and identify and lead implementation of the many proven models of private/public partnerships for community health in Ferguson. 

Big thinking is needed here.   The situation is a devolving mess, yet it can be addressed, in the short and long terms.  

The Failure to Acknowledge the Real Problems, and Resulting Impotence of Leadership

What is particularly alarming is the lack of identifiable leadership to bring us to that place.  If the right leaders were convened to explore the roots of the many problems in Ferguson, as well as the many research based-methods for most successfully addressing them, and led the community in securing and implementing these efforts, there is a real shot at progress, and real reason for some hope.

We see this in Missouri.  Governor Nixon intends to call the Missouri Legislature into special session because it has already drained the state’s millions of dollars to handle such emergencies.  Yet few are working in earnest to actually fix the problems that have created this juggernaut of genuine anger, which is reverberating in communities across the nation.  

There are proven, constructive remedies available; it’s just up to the powers that be at every level of community and government to seriously engage them. To turn the tragedies of Ferguson into something other than more anger, oppression, and harm – instead into an opportunity – Ferguson should become a smart laboratory for enabling structural economic health, community strength, and improved safety in struggling communities.   

There are plenty of proven methods that could enable real progress on all such fronts.  They are available now.  The rub seems to be the simple fact that change is hard.   To recognize the very real potential for community-wide improvement in Ferguson, this laboratory would have to embrace new thinking and emerging best practices – and it would require that people think differently, and more openly, about how we go about the business of community leadership, policing, and governing.

“Ferguson” is not just Ferguson, Missouri

Ferguson, Missouri, is representative of the economic and law enforcement problems plaguing so many  municipalities and communities like it in states across the country – regardless of whether there have been recent police killings of unarmed people   Such places  are relatively poor, with few economic opportunities, and indeed many economic handicaps.  As many in Ferguson have attested, the criminal justice system in Ferguson creates relentless economic oppression.  Elements of the criminal justice system undergird many of Ferguson’s woes. 

In short, the over-policing and relentless charging of criminal justice-related fees on the poor – as a means of funding  government – is the powderkeg of rage and frustration which the police killing of Michael Brown has ignited in Ferguson.  And which is simmering across the country. 

With a little common sense and some rational thinking among the right group of key community and governmental leaders, the implementation of criminal justice policies that would strengthen Ferguson’s community and economy could enable the situation improve in many ways – both immediately and in the long term, and provide hope for Ferguson and beyond. 

The real problems that give rise to the nationwide anger over Ferguson cannot be fixed by a grand jury indictment, the retirement of a police officer, or (God forbid) a heavier police presence. To address the real problems in Ferguson, and the real outcry across the country over Ferguson, we have to address not just the shooting of Michael Brown, but more importantly the structural criminal justice and economic problems that have served as a form of tyranny over the citizens of Ferguson – and the communities like it across the country.

Enlisting Public Defenders in Leadership  toward Community Health in Ferguson – and Beyond

For that reason, in addition to seeking monies to address the immediate problems in Ferguson, community, state and federal leaders must also engage in an open process to assess many problems Ferguson has long faced as a community; identify research-supported means of improving them; and recommend the new and existing private and public programs that should be used to implement such programs in Ferguson. 

The criminal justice system plays a role in all of these concerns, and public defenders and their colleagues have critically important perspective to provide to any such effort.

This thinking could provide a strategic plan for Ferguson, one with specific goals and benchmarks for varied indicators of community health.  The effort should be documented and researched – by academics, professionals, and the community at large – and their results available to all.    The effort could test the value of the strategies already proven successful elsewhere, and weave in evolving evidence-based practices. 

It would be appropriate for the federal government to support parts of the private/non-profit/public partnerships doing the work, as well as the related research, since it would provide real opportunities for growth and improvement to every state in the nation.   Just as it would be an act of denial for the state of Missouri to leave this burden on Ferguson alone, it would be irresponsible for the federal government to make Missouri alone address these problems that are neither solely Ferguson’s nor Missouri’s in the making. 

Ferguson is a Fleeting Opportunity to Change

I realize that suggestion may feel like a leap, but I suggest that this leap is smaller than declaring that a new Ferguson (and elsewhere) is impossible. Change is extremely difficult in politics, as change leaders are often punished by established interests for altering the status quo.   Because of the obvious crisis in play, leaders are have more freedom than they normally would have to call for change.  But also, given that these leaders – and their constituencies, as well as voters in general – all surely want better public safety, better community relations, to avoid government tyranny, and to enable healthy economies, there is reason to believe that all can and will come to the table, to work together toward truly constructive results for Ferguson. 

Indeed, there’s something for everyone in shifting to a positive, constructive response to the outcry over Ferguson.  This is a defining moment for Ferguson, and America.  I am hoping we rise to the challenge of America’s self image as the land of freedom and opportunity.  NAPD members have significant potential to help the country get there.