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Killing of Ferguson teenager by officer adds to the mistrust of law enforcement

Perhaps it is unwise to draw firm conclusions about what happened on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo., but even in the face of fragmented and inconsistent information, it is impossible to ignore the indisputable fact that a white police officer shot an unarmed African-American teenager, and did so at least six times, according to a private autopsy. It is shocking and it raises in an even more disturbing manner the same kinds of questions that have arisen in Buffalo this year.

Two autopsies have already been conducted on the body of Michael Brown and a third is planned by order of U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder as part of the expanding role the federal government is wisely taking in the violent aftermath of the shooting. Mistrust and suspicion are running high in Ferguson and the first order of business has to be to restore calm. That means reassuring the community that Brown’s death is being taken seriously by authorities.

That has been no easy task in an overwhelmingly African-American community with a largely white police force. And, indeed, that is where the trouble begins. Trust between citizens and law enforcement starts with the population’s belief that the people who carry guns and are in charge of ensuring public safety have something in common with them. That could hardly have been the case in Ferguson.

The circumstances surrounding the shooting, itself, are also in dispute. Police said Brown was shot after a conflict with an officer, since identified as Darren Wilson. A friend of Brown, Dorian Johnson, said the officer grabbed Brown’s neck with one hand and shot him with the other. Yet the autopsy showed none of the telltale signs of gunpowder expected in a shooting from close range.

And more confusion. In the private autopsy, conducted by Michael M. Baden, former chief medical officer for New York City, findings don’t yield clarity – at least, not yet. Baden described one wound to Brown’s head to the New York Times: “This one here looks like his head was bent downward. It can be because he’s giving up, or because he’s charging forward at the officer.”

Even still, Brown was unarmed when he was shot many times. “In my capacity as the forensic examiner for the New York State Police,” Baden said, “I would say, 'You’re not supposed to shoot so many times.’ ”

Buffalo hasn’t seen that kind of violence, but it has seen several episodes of police clearly exceeding their authority in dealing with the public. There have been several reports of off-duty officers engaging in heavy-handed tactics will working security at bars.

Other incidents have occurred. In April, video showed a police officer kicking and slapping a handcuffed suspect. Several other reports have surfaced of police attempting to delete onlookers’ videos documenting inappropriate actions by police.

Is there any connection between these events? It’s hard to know but important to ask. Increasing militarization of police departments could be an issue, and while that is troubling, it is also true that the bad guys are also increasingly militarized.

And there have always been bad cops, just as there are bad teachers, bad accountants and bad doctors. So, maybe these events are nothing more than the expected occasional deviations caused by police officers who lack good training, good superiors or a good moral compass.

But the questions are inevitable. Police are the servants of the public, not vice versa. The public has a right – even an obligation – to know that their police officers are well-trained, professional and accountable. One way for that to begin is to have officers wear video cameras that record their interactions, providing evidence of both false accusations and inappropriate actions by police. A lot of pain in Ferguson might have been avoided if Wilson, the police officer, had been so equipped.

There was a time when Americans were taught that the friendly cop on the beat was there to ensure their safety. It is doubtful that minority communities ever saw it that way, and other segments of the population may be starting to wonder about it.

We may never get back to that time in history – if it ever existed – but it’s a worthy goal for all police departments to adopt.