A former sergeant in the St. Louis County Police Department who served on the Ferguson Commission, Byron Watson reflects on changes in the infamous suburb since Michael Brown's death in August 2014.
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When Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in August 2014, the 18-year-old's death sparked protests and a national conversation over the disparate treatment of African Americans by law enforcement. Almost overnight, the small Missouri town became a symbol of everything from the militarization of local police to the countless incidents in which unarmed people of color don't survive encounters with cops. Last year, VICE on HBO explored the Ferguson protests and the use of military-style equipment against civilians.
Since Brown's death, the St. Louis suburb remained in the news: A federal report found that there was, in fact, endemic institutional racism in Ferguson's law enforcement system; a grand jury declined to indict Wilson; and, perhaps most important, the governor of Missouri appointed a commission—which disbanded this month—to address the underlying racial and economic gaps across the St. Louis region. In addition, the Department of Justice appears poised to announce an agreement with Ferguson to overhaul its police department.
Byron Watson, a 28-year veteran of the St. Louis County Police Department, served on the Ferguson Commission and spoke with VICE about how bad things were then—and what's changed since.
VICE: Law enforcement agencies are often a lot whiter than the communities they police, and that's obviously been a problem in Ferguson and other places in the St. Louis area where you've policed. The Justice Department report on Ferguson also describes a culture of racism and discriminatory practices. Did you experience that at all as a black officer?
Byron Watson: Oh my gosh, yes. When I came on in 1981, it was not good—probably even more difficult than dealing with the citizens. It's a lot better now; it's not perfect. It's kind of ironic that you hear minorities always talking about police departments not reflecting the community that they serve, and when I did get on the police department you would have thought those same people would have been more supportive of me. I'm not saying all of them were not supportive, but a large portion of them, whenever we would have a situation like we had in Ferguson—or a situation that was sort of tense—instead of them looking at me as [something] of a liaison or someone who would be supporting of their cause, I was looked at as an Uncle Tom.
And if that wouldn't be bad enough, you would think that the police that you work with would at least be a lot more supportive than some of them were. I had a lot [more] good officers than bad, but unfortunately the bad ones always stuck out because they hurt so much. And being subjected to that and knowing that these are the same people that you would need in the event of a life-threatening situation—in other words, a call for help—you were really outnumbered. And as a result, you remained quiet.
Given that experience, were you surprised at all that basically overnight Ferguson became this national symbol of police violence and institutional racism?
I wouldn't say surprised. I would say that these are some things that have been historically going on. I've lived in St. Louis my entire life and historically there has been a racial divide. When I was on the Ferguson Commission, one of the things that I learned through our research is that St. Louis is about the fifth-most segregated city of its size in America. And that surprised me.
Ferguson got the headlines, but Ferguson is by far not the only city in [the] St. Louis [area] with racial problems. We have a racial divide here in St. Louis that has sort of been like a pressure cooker for quite some time. And I think the shooting of Mike Brown was the spark that apparently set off years of frustration and years of racial divide and it just came to a head sort of like a perfect storm.
What lessons do you think law enforcement has learned in the wake of Michael Brown's death and other high profile [police shootings] since?
Well one of the things that I feel they've learned—and I've seen police doing this a lot more which I think is long overdue—is getting out in front of stories instead of being so secretive about what's going on in their investigation. One of the problems I felt in the Mike Brown situation was the narrative was set before the police department really had a chance to come up front and tell the people what they knew and when they knew it.
And as a result of that, a lot of the witnesses with the "Hands up, don't shoot!"– we found out later on was not the case. Unfortunately, that narrative is the narrative that took hold and I think the police departments took that as an example of what happens when you don't get out in front of the story. I think one of the things that they've learned is they do now come out with videos [and] more information than I've ever seen them give before.
Your time as a police officer coincided with federal programs that made military-style equipment available to local law enforcement agencies all over the country. Did that change the way you approached your job?
I initially thought of it just as another tool, another asset to assist mainly our SWAT team. Regular patrol officers didn't ride around in military vehicles. But as far as when we had [confrontations] or situations involving something in which the protection of the officers [was at stake]—you know, I thought [military-style equipment] it was a great asset overall. I didn't look at it the way it's being looked at now, that's for sure. I don't think hardly anybody at that time complained about it.
So it was kind of surprising to see some of the backlash that people were saying about the military tanks. I'm a veteran myself, and I was in a tank brigade and those aren't tanks. If you look at a Brinks truck, that's basically what you're looking at. As far as any type of gunnery or equipment that they would have used on that particular vehicle, that's not given to us. They're vehicles we've always had. I guess that's my surprise: to see people seeing these vehicles for all these years, and we never heard anyone say, "We don't [want] the police with the militarized vehicles."
But when police officers in Ferguson used gear that resembled military gear—they used teargas, there were assault style weapons, they were firing rubber bullets—did that feel like an appropriate police response?
Not for protesters, no. It was not designed for that. It was not to be used like that. It was misused, and unfortunately for that reason, we won't get anymore. If you looked at the shooting that they had at the Planned Parenthood [in Colorado Springs], the armored vehicle was pulled into position to pull people out of harm's way. Bullets were shooting from off of the top of this vehicle and there's no way a police car could have pulled in there and saved these people's lives. That was what it was originally designated to do.
Using this in a protest type of movement really brought bad attention to it. Those vehicles have done a lot more good than they will ever do bad, in my opinion.
You're referring to President Obama's announcement last year that the feds would limit the distribution of military gear. Have you noticed changes since?
Yeah, I guess it was the year after the shooting, they were going to have another peaceful march supposedly from the location where Mike Brown was shot, to the church that they had been rallying around. And there was nobody in nothing more than their regular uniforms. And I think the lesson that has been learned, or I think it's been learned, (I haven't seen it repeated since [US Senator] Claire McCaskill came out vocally about it)—[is] that you haven't seen those vehicles anymore on any of the protests here in St. Louis.
So I think the lesson was learned that the public is just not going to accept or feel it's appropriate to use that type of equipment on peaceful protesters. I'd be very surprised to see that again.
So if you agree that police departments are sometimes using it inappropriately, then it seems like it might be a reasonable move to say that unless everyone can use this is in a way that's appropriate...
Then we should limit it. I look at it this way: those departments that are not using it properly, the way it was given to them by the military, those should be the ones that are taken away. Our police department has learned its lesson. We're one of the largest police departments here in the state. But even with us, we ended up using it inappropriately. But at the same time, we're going to be affected by President Obama's reduction of equipment. So everybody is going to feel the pinch. There's no way any department could afford to pay for them.
So I guess what I'm saying is maybe the people who abuse it, maybe those are the departments we ought to start focusing on and take it away from them if they use it inappropriately.
Zooming out again to policing in general, it seems like when you've got folks who have the power to either arrest people or in extreme cases use deadly force, it doesn't actually take that many poorly trained or problem officers for that to be a pretty dangerous prospect.
Yes... and [that is] one of the things that we are trying to address here in St. Louis in particular. We have right now about 60 police departments. Those 60 police departments have variations of standards, and one of the problems that we saw with the Ferguson Commission is that a lot of these police departments were not even certified. In other words, their police departments were not trained properly. And we also found that they became a haven for officers from other departments who said that they weren't either qualified or that they had done something so egregious that they shouldn't be police officers.
So what we're trying to do here in St. Louis right now through this Senate Bill 5 that was passed is that we now have standards here in Missouri that every police department in six years will have to be accredited. And what that basically means is that there is a criteria that is not set by the police departments, it's an outside agency called [the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies], and they are going to come in and look at your department and there are certain fundamental things that you must have in order to be a police department. So hopefully with this newly enacted law, we are going to reduce the amount of police departments that have become havens for these officers that in my opinion no longer need to be in law enforcement. And hopefully weed those departments out of our city, which I think have been very instrumental in causing this racial divide.
It seems like in some of the more high profile cases—and we saw this with the Tamir Rice case in Cleveland—you've got people who want these police officers criminally charged, and you've got police officials who don't even think their policy has been violated. How do you reconcile that?
That's really disturbing what happened there in Cleveland. And I'm not picking on Cleveland; we've had our own issues here in St. Louis. But at the same time some of these things—even to me being in law enforcement—it's kind of hard to take. I don't know if it's trying to protect those good officers that are left or if it's just that they're trying to protect their image that's left. But there are some cases that have gone on that have even caused veteran officers like myself to wonder how and why charges weren't brought up in particular situations.
This is what always confuses me about police chiefs and union officials. It seems like if you wanted to preserve the integrity of the good officers on your force, you wouldn't defend the ones who you honestly believe had done something wrong.
Yeah, it's kind of mind-boggling to any lay person or civilian out there seeing that. And I think that this fraternity that we have in law enforcement, sometimes you get too close to each other and it's difficult sometimes to tell your brother he's wrong even when you know your brother is wrong. And that is a problem that I think comes from this fraternity or this brotherhood. It's an "us against the world"–type attitude.
What changes are you hoping for out of a potential agreement between Ferguson and the Department of Justice?
In terms of what we're hoping will come from this is some of the things we're already seeing Ferguson doing, and that's reaching out to the black community. We're starting to see more resources put in those black communities not as policing tools, but as foundational tools to try to bridge relationships. They're putting more PR minded policemen there who are actually talking to residents, who are trying to bridge the gap between residents and police departments.
Any tax increase to finance [the agreement] would have to be put to the voters. Do you think people will vote for it?
That's a good question, and right now the barometer in Ferguson—it's lukewarm. If you had asked me this question a year ago, I would have said, "No way." There were some people who wanted the city to fail, but as time has gone on and there have been some inroads and improvements in the area of race relations, and also dialogue between the police department and the citizens in Ferguson. I would say it'll be a 50-50.
How do you reconcile your concern that officers are being lumped together with the reality that these shootings happen and people experience law enforcement in a really problematic way with some regularity?
That's a fair question and a good question. These shootings have received a lot of attention, and well-worth attention in my opinion. But I think like all things, you have to take all things in context. You have to look at the overall amount of officers who go through their entire career and never fire a shot—me being one of them. Thirty-five years on the job, I've pulled my gun many times, I've been in situations where I would have been justified to use my weapon, and I didn't. That's not because I'm better than the officers that did, it's just that there are a lot of officers out there who go through an entire career and never shoot anyone or never hurt anyone.
What conversation are you hoping we'll be having a year from now about St. Louis and Ferguson?
I hope the other cities around the country have been watching this because there's no doubt that we're no different from a lot of poor communities throughout this country. They're all powder kegs and it only takes one incident to set it off. And one of the things that I hope we're talking about next year is how we have learned from this incident here in Ferguson and here in St. Louis that the police have to be viewed as the servers and the protectors.
We cannot have the support of the community if the police are looked upon as racially profiling, [ticket] writing, shooting innocent people, unarmed people. Those types of images have done nothing but bring law enforcement back. I hope a year from now that we are talking about [how] police have responded to the calls of the citizens that we serve. I think the biggest thing I hope this brings about—and I pray it brings about—is that the good officers like myself will start banding closer together to try to out officers who in my opinion have no business being policemen.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
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