Like most Americans, I am deeply saddened and troubled by the events in Ferguson, Mo. As a mayor, I am painfully aware that racial tensions have the potential to boil over in any city, including my own.
I am extremely proud of the positive way in which people of different races, ethnicities, nationalities and cultural backgrounds live and work together in the city of Columbus. But no city is immune to the raw emotions that can be unleashed by a single incident.
There is no textbook way to respond to a community crisis such as the one sparked by the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American teenager shot by a Ferguson police officer on Aug. 9.
But the book has now been written by Ferguson city officials on how not to respond.
While I am certain that the vast majority of Ferguson police and city personnel are decent, caring people, the impression that has been left with the rest of the nation is of a bureaucracy that is insensitive, deceptive and incompetent.
What we see in Ferguson is an overwhelmingly white police force without a clue of how to deal with the black residents they are pledged to protect and serve. In the absence of open communication, there is fear, mistrust and hostility.
This is why we must never shy away from the topic of race. If racially charged issues are not discussed openly, they will fester and infect the entire community. And if we do not talk about race during times of relative tranquility, then by the time a crisis comes, it already will be too late.
To build trust between the police and the black community in every city in America is both essential and extremely difficult to achieve because of the history of this dynamic in America. Trust will not be created overnight; it must be earned over time.
The failure to build this trust is tragic for the people of Ferguson, who are in desperate need of strong, compassionate and transparent leadership at this time. But it is instructive for the rest of us, some of whom may ourselves be similarly tested someday.
Ferguson reminds us why it is important to respect our residents’ First Amendment rights of speech and assembly. While Columbus, thankfully, has not been faced with protests on the scale of what Ferguson is dealing with, our police are known for treating demonstrators with respect, interacting with them and allowing them their space. To greet protesters with riot gear and weapons drawn only increases tensions — and potentially provides gasoline for the fire.
Ferguson reminds us why it is important to insist on a diverse safety force. Those who have argued that the recruitment of African-Americans here in Columbus serves no substantive purpose now have the harsh example of Ferguson to refute them. The city of Columbus is not where we need to be in this regard, which is why we have stepped up our efforts to recruit qualified women and minorities to our public-safety forces. We do this not in pursuit of an arbitrary percentage but because a Police Division that doesn’t reflect the diversity of the community can result in resentment and distrust. And diversity makes for a stronger and better Police Division.
Ferguson reminds us why it is important to couple strong police enforcement with strong community outreach. Our police use aggressive tactics that lead to arrests and seizures of guns and drugs. They also interact with residents through neighborhood bicycle tours, block-watch meetings and individual conversations. We do this because our residents will work with our police if they have positive relationships with them.
Ferguson reminds us why it is important to prevent violence by addressing the root causes of crime. We’ve created a violence deterrence initiative through which trained youth-intervention specialists engage young people on the streets to steer them from bad choices, while offering positive alternatives.
I do not congratulate myself for achieving all our goals through these efforts. On the contrary, Ferguson reminds me that we are imperfect as a city, and we have much more to do.
I would be naïve to presume that a crisis like the one facing Ferguson city officials today could never happen here.
We must not only learn from Ferguson’s mistakes but also ask ourselves each day whether we’re doing all we can to earn the trust and confidence of our residents.
Michael B. Coleman is mayor of Columbus.