I was the police chief in Kansas City, Missouri, when an unarmed African-American teenager was shot by a cop for a non-violent issue. The result was a peaceful and constructive public dialogue — the opposite of what is happening now in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old.
I was then the youngest big-city police chief in America, having just arrived from New York City, where I had been a deputy inspector in the New York Police Department during a high-crime period. But I had no real honeymoon in Missouri.
Just a few days after I took charge, on a crystal-clear day in 1973, a uniformed officer responded to a daylight break-in of a home. The officer raised his shotgun and fired at a youth running away. He killed Rory Lark, age 15, unarmed and slight at 52kg.
The Kansas City Star filled its entire front page with an image of Lark, an angelic school photo of the youngster who looked to be a skinny 10-year-old. If you had a heart, you had to be touched.
If Lark had received any punishment, it would likely have been a week in juvenile hall. As a gesture of sympathy to the black community, I attended his funeral in civilian clothes. The officer was reprimanded and transferred.
Reasonable people, black and white, didn’t want to hear how the law was complicated, or how a new chief was not responsible for the boy’s death. So we waited through the night to see if the city would burn. It didn’t. The next day, however, pickets appeared in front of police headquarters demanding, in none-too-polite language, that I should go back to New York.
Kansas City’s black community wanted to know why this boy had died for a nonviolent crime? My police department responded quickly: He should not have been fired upon.
I reminded the media that I had announced in my first news conference as chief that I didn’t believe officers should use their firearms unless there was imminent danger to human life. I planned to rewrite the firearms policy, I had declared, so that officers were officially ordered not to fire except under those circumstances.
As soon as possible, we announced the official new policy. It prohibited police officers from firing at unarmed suspects. We cut back on all police use of military gear. We invited local community leaders to help shape police responses. Police shootings fell dramatically, and crime declined as local leadership joined with police in speaking out against crime.
The Lark shooting, remarkably similar to Ferguson now, offers lessons we can learn. First, except for highly unusual circumstances, police have no excuse for killing unarmed people.
Second, it is in Americans’ national DNA that we be policed by civil, not military, institutions. In Ferguson and across the nation, police need to recalibrate the use of deadly force – and return to traditional strategies of professional police working with the public to win support against criminals.
Body cameras, better training and discipline, new police leadership, and other strategies are crucial. But it is clear that US police must recalibrate current militarisation policies, in which officer safety is paramount.
Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson, a self-appointed spokesman for an investigation of which he was not part, held frequent press conferences that only helped create more confusion.
Jackson also did not coordinate with captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, whom governor Jay Nixon had put in charge to help defuse the situation.
Jackson seems to have foolishly tried to walk through a legal minefield, possibly releasing information that could hinder the prosecution of involved officers. This may also lead to charges of a police cover-up.
Yet, all the remedial steps now being debated focus on actions to take after a tragic death — not the deep-rooted causes that must be part of real reform.
Police nationwide have drifted into the militarisation of attitude and equipment as a strategy for controlling street demonstrations such as Occupy Wall Street, youth violence, heavy crime zones, and drug searches.
This sort of militarisation was intended for extremely rare hostage situations. The arrest of journalists and the use of tear gas in Ferguson is zany.
The major issue, though, still is the unanswered question: What justification do the police have for killing an unarmed suspect?
The answer is always: None.