Ferguson and the unwritten contract between police and the community

He described the unwritten contract between the police and the community in places like Oakland, where one would think a petty affront to the commonweal like jaywalking should hardly warrant a police officer’s attention. But this unwritten contract, as McWhorter described it, places demands on both the police and the community. Under the contract, police officers ignore minor infractions like jaywalking, but they expect the community not to flout the law, even a minor one, in their presence. Thus when McWhorter jaywalked, the officer took it as a violation of the contract and a challenge, one that could not be ignored.

I spent many years as a cop in South-Central Los Angeles, and this contract exists there as it does in Oakland and any other high-crime area you could name. If I drove my black-and-white down Central Avenue and saw a man walking against a red light, he knew that once he saw me, the contract demanded that he run the rest of the way, or at least increase the speed of his walking as an acknowledgement that he was breaking the law and, at least in theory, was deserving of a ticket. My end of the contract was to drive on, perhaps with a wave to the man to demonstrate that I appreciated his effort to honor the contract. These types of interactions take place thousands of times a day in cities across the country, including, I suspect, in Ferguson.

When the Ferguson officer drove onto the block and saw Michael Brown and his friend walking down the middle of the street, he expected them to move to the sidewalk as soon as they realized a police car was approaching. When they didn’t, the officer took it as a violation of the contract, even a challenge. Which in a way it was.