So how did it get to this?
How did Ferguson an unremarkable inner-ring St. Louis suburb, come to share time with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria during a presidential news briefing?
How did Ferguson, which has been trying for years to rebrand itself as semi-cool (the new Maplewood!), manage to do just the opposite in just a few days?
How did things there get so bad, so fast, that Gov. Jay Nixon, host of the Governor’s Ham Breakfast at the State Fair in Sedalia, had to tear himself away from an event dear to the heart of a Missouri politician?
How did Mr. Nixon, a law-and-order Democrat from rural De Soto, become convinced that he had to relieve the St. Louis County police department from its command responsibilities over Ferguson’s continuing civil unrest?
There are long-term answers and short-term answers. We hope to get to the long-term answers later. They have to do with fragmented government, decades of deliberate residential segregation and inequalities in educational opportunity.
Short term, Ferguson happened because of a series of shockingly poor law enforcement decisions. Those decisions began Aug. 9 when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson decided to shoot to kill an unarmed man, 18-year-old Michael Brown. They continued when Ferguson police left Mr. Brown’s body on the street for four hours. How long does a crime-scene investigation take? Does Ferguson not have a tent?
The bad decisions escalated when St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, summoned by an overwhelmed Ferguson police force, opted to react to protests with an overwhelming show of paramilitary force. Before being named chief in January, Col. Belmar had made his reputation in the department by running its tactical (SWAT) unit. That was his training. That’s where he went.
Cops armored up in tactical gear and began using non-lethal, but unnecessary, crowd-control weapons. Wooden and rubber baton rounds. Tear gas. Smoke grenades. Armored vehicles mounted with machine guns.
The bad decisions continued with the arrests and/or detentions of peaceful protesters and journalists. They continued as St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch refused to share even basic information about the case. Not the name of the officer who killed Mr. Brown, though the name has since been released. Not the autopsy findings about how many bullets struck him and where. Not an incident report. Not the most basic information generally available to reporters when the alleged shooter isn’t a cop.
Mr. McCulloch’s father was a St. Louis Police officer who was shot and killed in the line of duty in 1964. He has personally prosecuted cop-killers and sought the death penalty for them. He’ll take the case of Mr. Brown’s shooting to a grand jury, but grand juries nearly always follow where the prosecutor leads.
And that’s where Mr. McCulloch has a problem. On Thursday he waded into the change in command in Ferguson, telling Post-Dispatch reporter Paul Hampel that Mr. Nixon’s decision was “disgraceful.” He went so far as to suggest the change might “put a lot of people in danger.” That’s inflammatory talk for a man who is supposed to prosecute the incident that set off the protests. It strains his credibility. This case might be too much for him.
Short-term, Gov. Nixon’s decision Thursday afternoon — at the prodding of the president of the United States and most of the state’s leading Democratic politicians — to get more directly involved was welcome, if about 48 hours late.
Mr. Nixon said he wanted to change the “tone” of the law enforcement response in Ferguson. He also changed the optics, putting Capt. Ronald S. Johnson of the state Highway Patrol in command in Ferguson. Capt. Johnson, who grew up in the Ferguson area, is a recruiting-poster trooper who happens to be black.
But like the rest of the 1,100 Missouri state troopers, he has little urban policing experience. The Highway Patrol is not a full-service police agency. Its chief responsibility is traffic, though it has a fine crime lab and investigates crimes that rural sheriffs’ departments can’t handle.
That was less important Thursday evening than Capt. Johnson’s openness and willingness to engage with protesters. He set an example by walking and talking with marchers. Most importantly, he left no doubt that there was a new sheriff in town.
Until he took over, there was considerable doubt about who was actually in charge. The few news briefings were unhelpful. There was little engagement with protesters, no accountability. Worse, there was very little coordinated command structure. Cops from multiple jurisdictions were on hand, but few if any of them knew who was responsible for what.
From now on, when police academies want to teach the wrong way to handle a civil disturbance, they’ll study the Belmar Plan. At least the force that was employed was non-lethal.
With the change in command and tactics comes some hope that the protests can wind down and the process of healing will begin. That process will be long and difficult. It will require people of good will to sit down together and interact in a way that is rare in this metropolitan area. Ferguson has its own set of issues to resolve. So does St. Louis County.
There is an election in November. Mr. McCulloch, a Democrat, is seeking a seventh term as prosecutor. No matter how his investigation into Mr. Brown’s killing turns out, however, his chances won't be affected. He is unopposed.
But county voters also will choose a new chief executive. Before last Saturday, it would not have occurred to either Democrat Steve Stenger or Republican Rick Stream that Ferguson would be a campaign issue. Now it could be a defining one.