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IU experts available to discuss Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Mo., and its aftermath

Aug. 15, 2014


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Today, police in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo., announced the identity of the officer who shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, after nearly a week of protests and clashes between the police and residents and the media. Faculty experts at Indiana University offer their comments on the following themes:

Killings of Michael Brown and others across the country show need for systematic change in policing

Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Mo. -- along with similar killings of four other black men by police throughout the United States during the past month -- indicates that systematic change in policing is long overdue, according to Jeannine Bell, an IU Maurer School of Law expert on police behavior and hate crimes.

“Although the circumstances of these tragic killings are all slightly different, they have one thing in common,” said Bell, professor of law and the Louis F. Niezer Faculty Fellow. “These men were killed because the police saw them as dangerous suspects, even though emerging witness accounts suggest that several of the individuals killed did not pose a serious bodily threat to the officers who responded with deadly force.”

Bell said that despite years of consent decrees and other legal mechanisms, police killings of unarmed black citizens will continue until the culture of law enforcement fundamentally changes. “The best way to change the culture is get police officers to see blacks not just as suspects, but also as crime victims.”

In her book "Policing Hatred: Law Enforcement, Civil Rights, and Hate Crime," Bell had unprecedented access to a police hate crimes unit, which enabled her to explore the impact of a victim's identity on each officer’s handling of bias crimes. “My field research shows police can develop sensitivity toward African Americans in general while still enforcing the law, provided they are afforded the opportunity to interact with blacks as the victims of crime.” 

A nationally recognized expert on hate crime, Bell has written extensively on policing and criminal justice issues. She is available to comment on these matters and can be reached at 812-856-5013 or

Tragic incident a clear indication that much progress still needed in race relations

"The situation in Ferguson, Mo., is tragic, but not surprising," said Valerie Grim, professor and chair of the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. "When one reads the history of that city within the context of U.S. history and African continental history, we continue to see the existences of racism and colonialism.

"Not only is racism individual and societal, but institutional and structural. This is why a minority group, as in formerly apartheid South Africa, can rule and dominate a majority for decades," Grim said. "In every situation where racial dominance exists, change has to happen not only in relation to positions of power, as in a minority becoming president of the United States; it has to be structural and spiritual.

"It is not surprising to see that the domination of African Americans in Ferguson is consistent with the state sanctioning of violence against black people, many of whom are very poor," Grim said. "Yet, consistent with history and the need black people have always had to be heard and to have agency, the African American community in Ferguson has rightly stood up. They are not just standing against the white structural racist establishment in Ferguson, but against history and ideology, a way of thinking that views blacks as less than.  Michael Brown is the impetus for this current moment, but the people of Ferguson have larger issues and struggles against systemic white power, like the kind that killed Emmett Till.

"There in Ferguson, there are some in the white community who understand the current and historical pains blacks there and throughout America feel. So they have joined the protest, as others of the past have, realizing that it is going to take more than African Americans in Ferguson and the U.S. to bring down hatred and racism. An overwhelming majority of us are going to have to stand, including freedom-loving people throughout communities of the United States and the world who feel disregarded in any form."

Grim can be reached at 812-855-4726 or

Police detentions of media part of a larger pattern across the United States

"Police have a tough job to do in situations like the one in Ferguson, but the media also have a right to report on how they do it," said Anthony L. Fargo, a professor of journalism in the IU Media School. "The detention of Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post for no apparent public safety reason, as well as other incidents involving police aggression against journalists, raises disturbing questions about the extent to which police are trying to keep their actions from public scrutiny.

"The detentions in Ferguson are, unfortunately, part of a larger pattern that has emerged in recent years involving police overreacting, often illegally, to being photographed and recorded in public places by journalists and other citizens," added Fargo, who also directs the school's Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies.

"While no one questions that police have a right to protect themselves and the public from dangerous distractions, in most instances the distractions are caused by police officers reacting to the presence of media and citizen cameras as if the cameras posed some sort of physical threat.

"The vast majority of police officers do difficult and demanding jobs well and are credits to the communities they serve. But the nature of those jobs means that they will be in the public eye and under media scrutiny much of the time. And they have to learn to accept that and adapt to it," Fargo said. "Cellphone technology means that nearly everyone police encounter may be recording the encounter, and that is perfectly legal in most situations. Upholding the law means upholding the First Amendment rights of the press and public to record and comment upon police actions."

Fargo can be reached at 812-855-5420 (office), 812-219-0806 (mobile) or