What My Dad, a Detroit Riot Cop, Might Think About Ferguson

On vacation in northern Michigan, I drove to town Monday morning for fresh eggs and a day-old Detroit Free Press, where I found an op-ed by the CEO of New Detroit, a coalition of business, labor, and civil-rights organizations forged from the fires of the 1967 riots. She wrote, "A number of people viewing recent events in Ferguson, Mo., have asked me, 'Could it happen here?' My answer: It did."

The author, an African-American businesswoman named Shirley Stancato, urged people to recognize that nearly five decades of progress in Detroit and elsewhere hasn't eradicated racial inequity and animus. "In Ferguson," Stancato wrote, "the myth that America has entered into some sort of idyllic post-racial society has once again been shown to be just that—a myth."

Great column. Read it here. Notice the two pictures that accompanied her piece. One is of a police officer dressed like a soldier in the streets of Ferguson, his finger on the trigger of a military assault rifle. The other, 47 years older, shows a frightened National Guardsman squinting into the sky, with Detroit burning behind him.

That second picture reminded me of Dad. My father was a Detroit police officer, a riot cop in 1967. I wish I could ask him what he thinks of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson; of the Ferguson protesters, the Ferguson Police Department, the Missouri State Highway Patrol, and Captain Ron Johnson; of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, President Obama, and the orgy of outrage from the professional Left and Right. But I can't; Dad passed away this spring.

I suspect he'd be insulted by the rush to judgment against Wilson, the officer who shot an unarmed Brown. There are people—powerful people—demanding his arrest and conviction without full knowledge of the facts.

I suspect he'd question why the Ferguson Police Department responded to the initial protests like an invading army. Also, I don't think he'd want anybody besmirching an 18-year-old shooting victim for political gain. There were few things Dad hated worse than politics and bad police work.

If I could talk to Dad about Ferguson it would be over a beer—or two—and we would start with the things we know (or think we know):

1. Brown was unarmed and shot by a police officer six times from the front.

2. One of the shots hit him in the top of the head.

3. Some witnesses say his hands were raised in surrender.

4. Due largely to Republican policies (the Iraq War, the drug war, and a tough-on-crime platform), local police departments are far more heavily armed than they were in Dad's day.

5. Many black Americans fear cops.

    Then, we'd debate the things we don't know, including:

      1. Brown threaten or attack Wilson in a manner that gave the officer a reason to fear for his life, or for the lives of others?

      2. Does the bullet to the top of Brown's head suggest that he was bowing in surrender? Or charging?

      3. Are there witnesses whose accounts would counter the prevailing narratives?

      4. Is it relevant that Brown robbed a convenience store shortly before the shooting? The Ferguson police have said Wilson didn't know that Brown was a suspect when he first encountered him, so we know the robbery was not directly relevant to the officer's actions, at least initially. But what about Brown's state of mind? He knew he had just committed a crime and might be held accountable. Did it affect his approach to the cop?

      5. Will there be a fair inquiry? The prosecutor overseeing the investigation has roots in law enforcement: His father, mother, brother, uncle, and cousin all worked for St. Louis's police department, and his father was killed while responding to a call involving a black suspect. What about his state of mind?

      Dad would say a few bad cops hurt the reputation of a great profession. Many Americans believe the problem is more systemic. Well, this is indisputable: Police departments nationwide don't reflect the racial makeup of their communities—a disconnect that causes and inflames conflict.

      The Detroit riots were the subject of one of the last conversations I had with Dad before he got sick. We were at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum with my son, standing in front of a 1960s exhibit that included a life-sized picture of the Detroit riots. "We fought in the bad neighborhoods," Dad said, "all the while wondering whether the bad guys were burning down our homes, too."

      Our neighborhood and their neighborhood. Good guys and bad guys. Pinning a badge on your chest tends to make the world binary, even when you're a cop, like my father, whom other cops emulate for their ability to defuse tense situations with humor, empathy, and street smarts. Not their guns.

      Here's where I think Dad and I would agree: We don't know enough to either condemn or exonerate Wilson. Not yet. I can almost hear Dad, Why do you think you've got all the answers? Who made you judge and jury?

      Personally, I think Obama has struck the right tone. The president says he understands why people are angry, but he has avoided taking sides. His warnings against violent clashes have been directed equally at the protesters and the police.

      "Ours is a nation of laws for the citizens who live under them and for the citizens who enforce them," Obama said, angering left- and right-wing partisans whose minds are closed to any evidence that counters their cemented views.

      One blogger called the president "almost ridiculously tentative and even-handed"—as if it's a political crime to be fair. Even-handedness is not the hallmark of modern politics, a profession that increasingly rewards hard-headed politicians and journalists.

      Later this week, I will be in my hometown to help scatter Dad's ashes in the Detroit River, within sight of his 1967 battleground. That is one reason why Stancato rocked me with her column, and these words: "While we have come a long way in a number of areas since 1967, many of the inequities that existed in our nation, state, region and city still persist today."