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John Due: In Ferguson, the police appeared to be an occupying force vs. community

He says the proper role of police is to be working with community to solve problems

Due: Adopting principle of "restorative justice" can unite a community

Editor’s Note: Attorney John D. Due Jr. has been a civil rights and community activist for almost six decades, in Florida and in Mississippi, where he represented CORE and James Chaney, one of three civil rights workers killed 50 years ago. As a member of the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board and director of the Office of Black Affairs, Due often served as a liaison between the black community and law enforcement during periods of racial and ethnic tension.

CNN  — 

I remember the day I rang the bell. When you finish radiation treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, there’s a bell in the waiting room that you ring three times, and when you do, the entire room erupts with applause. I remember the immediate rush when it was my turn. I felt the euphoric joy of having survived.

As I have watched the media coverage on Michael Brown, I have begun to wonder, what should I wear to my party?

Should I wear a prisoner’s uniform? Or am I expected to wear a dark blue business suit simply because I am a member of the Florida Bar?

John D. Due Jr.

Michael Brown – “Big Mike” – was the unarmed, young black man about to begin college who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson County, outside of St. Louis. Witnesses say Mike Brown had his hands up, which is the universal sign of surrender that should have stopped the shooting. Although media focused last week on whether he had a juvenile record – something completely irrelevant to whether his killing by a white police officer was justified – Mike Brown was never convicted of a crime or in prison. Yet he was still trapped in society’s prison without walls.

The legal case against the police officer will center on whether he acted in self-defense and used necessary force to protect himself and or society.

The larger question this case raises is the role of the police force in a community. Is it to be at war with the community on a militarized basis to destroy the enemy in a zero-sum game of winners and losers? Does this mean we need to train our police in anti-terrorism and war games with a military orientation of being a winner against a loser?

The fate of Big Mike is the most recent highly publicized shooting of a young black man by our militarized police departments, which perpetuate our collective fear and war mentality instead of instilling trust.

What happened to the idea of “restorative justice,” where everybody is a winner in a win-win game rather than a zero-sum game? Restorative justice is a philosophy similar to the reconciliation philosophy that led South Africa to a peaceful democracy post-apartheid, in which law enforcement engages with offenders, victims and community members to strengthen them all.

Restorative justice is central to the success of community policing.

When Janet Reno was state attorney of Miami-Dade County, she worked with leaders like Bob Simms of the Community Relations Board, who was my boss, and Dennis Moss, of the West Perrine Crime Prevention Program in a low-income community, to advance community policing, a strategy of collaborative partnerships among law enforcement and the communities they serve to reduce crime and fear and to promote trust.

Instead of adopting zero tolerance as a solution to push-out “problem children,” they developed a “circle” model of community policing, which included meetings every week with the state attorney, public safety and law enforcement officials, community organizations, and those the greater community would label as “thugs.” This was a model that Janet Reno took to the Justice Department as United States attorney general when the “Community Oriented Policing Services,” or COPS, program was launched in 1994 to revolutionize policing.

But post-9/11, it seems that community policing has all but been forgotten because of the perceived need to militarize our police departments with anti-terrorism equipment and training.

Our power structure no longer shows love for “community policing” with the black community, which has become a prison without walls in the zero-sum war mentality of winners and losers.

For our social sanity, philosopher Erich Fromm would have said we must assert compassion, responsibility, respect, knowledge and order to restore our community. We can no longer live in a society where we have no love for our neighbor or our enemy, where we have no productive love for all of God’s children.

So, it was heartening when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that the United States Justice Department was not only going to investigate whether there has been a local police pattern and practice of civil rights violations in Ferguson County, but also that he had tapped Ron Davis, director of the DOJ’s COPS program, to provide technical assistance to St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar in a voluntary collaborative reform process.

Yet it was disappointing that in the press statement and questions and answers between reporters and Holder and Davis, there were no words re-affirming the concept of restorative justice to counter the militarization of our local police departments.

This silence hurts the confidence of state attorneys, judges and law enforcement agencies who have believed that restorative justice is an official part of the COPS program. Restorative justice is a healing process – focusing on the needs of the victim, the needs of the offender, as well as the community that is at risk. Its goal is to establish a beloved community – not retribution and fear.

But I have hope and faith that local law enforcement officials like Sheriff Morris Young, who is responsible for Gadsden County in the predominantly black town of Quincy, Florida, will continue to set an example by viewing residents – even those who are at risk or have committed offenses – as people and not just statistics that feed the dependent criminal justice system. This commitment to restorative justice will help prevent crime, facilitate the re-entry of wrongdoers when they get in trouble, and strengthen our communities.

So, on my 80th birthday, I will wear a prison uniform – so as to tell my family and friends that we are all prisoners – but with hope and faith that we can all break free.

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