There may be a world of difference between the shooting Saturday of an unarmed man by police in Ferguson, Mo., and the LAPD shooting Monday of an unarmed and apparently mentally ill man in South Los Angeles — or there may not be — but the incidents are bound by a common thread that runs through American history and that demands continuing attention and corrective action.
Certainly public safety requires police forces of well-trained officers ready to put their lives on the line for the people they serve. It also requires that the people who pay for and rightfully expect to be protected by the police have well-founded confidence in them, and that confidence requires in turn that the public has an opportunity to discover and challenge bad or outmoded police policies, practices and attitudes.
Less than a week has passed since the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, and even less time since the killing of 26-year-old Ezell Ford here, so it is simply not yet possible to say with certainty whether police in each case followed their training and policy. But a basic fact of life in Ferguson is undeniable: An overwhelmingly white police force disproportionately stops and arrests African Americans. It is a situation that resonates in other cities across the nation, where occupation-style policing in nonwhite neighborhoods once prevailed and may prevail still. People must have reason to believe that police will hear and heed their legitimate complaints, and if there appears to be no safe and rational forum for that conversation, they will seek another one, as the violent encounters in Ferguson over the last five nights show.
Los Angeles is high on the list of cities with long histories of police abuses, especially in African American neighborhoods. Those include a number of deadly encounters between officers and mentally disturbed people that could have been avoided, so the Ford shooting is necessarily seen and felt in that context. But Los Angeles also has a history, albeit a much shorter one, of police reform and community engagement, so there may exist sufficient residual confidence that Ford's tragic death will be properly investigated and any necessary corrective action taken.
That's still not enough, though. Even if it turns out that policy and procedure were scrupulously followed in the Ford shooting, it is hard to believe that police cannot refine their encounters with unarmed citizens to avoid the use of deadly force — and to avoid reopening wounds that have barely begun to heal here and remain raw elsewhere.