Lanny Davis: Poor communication in Ferguson only made things worse

Lanny Davis: Poor communication in Ferguson only made things worse
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No matter how effective the communications skills of the key players in the Michael Brown tragedy, bitterness and anger by the African-American community across the country (shared by many whites as well) would have resulted when the decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson was announced. 

Still the Ferguson prosecutor, police chief and mayor made things worse by their failure to communicate more effectively with the community and the public.

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The prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, failed to address at the post-decision press conference what crisis managers would call the “elephant in the room” question: Why did he question Wilson more like a sympathetic defense attorney during direct testimony than a prosecutor cross-examining the target of a grand jury investigation? 

From his post-decision press conference, it is clear that he believed there was insufficient evidence to meet even the low “probable cause” standard to indict — i.e., that he believed Wilson would have been acquitted due to evidence or at least a reasonable doubt whether he acted in self-defense. Had McCulloch admitted up-front that he soft-balled his questioning of Wilson because of this belief, at least he would have been credited with honesty. 

Indeed, one can surmise he would not have called a grand jury but for the high-profile, racial overtones of this tragic incident. But having done so, the prosecutor didn’t sufficiently highlight in his press conference three rare, almost unprecedented decisions he made in this particular grand jury process. 

First, he allowed evidence, both pro and con, regarding the credibility of the officer’s version of what happened and various conflicting eye-witnesses.

Second, he expressly allowed the 12 grand jurors — nine whites and three African-Americans — to make their own decision (with nine votes required to indict), without a recommendation from himself. 

And third, he released everything publicly — testimony, exhibits, forensic evidence — so that the public could decide for itself whether there was “probable cause” to indict Wilson. 

My gut tells me that justice would have been better served if McCulloch had used the traditional approach of presenting jurors with just enough evidence to persuade them there was sufficient probable cause to allow a jury to sort out the conflicting eye-witness testimony on exactly what happened — especially the critical fact in dispute, as to whether Brown raised his hands in surrender prior to Wilson shooting him to death or, as some witnesses and Wilson have contended, Brown continued to approach after Wilson told him to stop. Then a public trial, almost certainly televised, would have allowed all to see witnesses cross-examined and a jury rendering a verdict. No doubt a not guilty verdict would have still caused controversy in the African-American community, but at least the benefits of transparency and context would likely have led to less anger. 

A second failure of communication was that of the Ferguson police chief, Thomas Jackson, and the 34-year-old Republican mayor, James Knowles III. It’s one thing that they failed to implement effective outreach between police and the community; but worse is the horrific, indefensible fact that there are only three or four African-Americans out of 50 on the Ferguson police force, with two-thirds of the Ferguson community being African-American. 

How is that possible? It cannot be that good-faith, active recruiting of qualified police officers could result in so few African-Americans serving on the local police force. 

Yet neither Jackson nor Knowles acknowledged these failures of communication and leadership, violating Crisis Management Rule 101. 

Just recently the mayor announced the formation of a Citizens Review Board to monitor police actions in the future and a better outreach program to add minorities to the police force, including establishment of a scholarship program to assist in paying tuition for the police academy. Wish he had done this well before now — but better late than never. 

If there is anything good that can come out of this tragic experience in Ferguson, it is that it’s put greater national focus on the need for effective community policing and outreach programs in high-crime, urban areas, and especially ensuring that law enforcement personnel better reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the citizens they police. 

Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, and is executive vice president of the strategic communications firm, Levick. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life