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In Law Enforcement, Diversity Is Important, Ex-Chief Says

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Steve Inskeep talks to Daniel Isom, a former St. Louis police chief and now a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, about the shooting of an unarmed teen in nearby Ferguson, Mo.


Here's the latest from Ferguson, Missouri, where officials have named the police officer who shot an unarmed black teenager. That shooting set off days of angry protests. The officer's name is Darren Wilson. And we learned his name today after some delay. Authorities had been expressing concern about his safety.


And we'll certainly be monitoring community reaction to that. Now, the mood in Ferguson was much different last night. Police who had been confronting protesters were put under new command. And the new commander took a different approach. The new commander, state police Captain Ronald Johnson is African-American.

INSKEEP: And as notable as his race was, the approach he took - police put away their riot gear and military-style weapons. Now, to gain some insight into police work and situations like this, we spoke with Daniel Isom, who was police chief in the city of St. Louis for five years. We asked if he faced anything like the protests in Ferguson.

DANIEL ISOM: We had the Occupy protests in St. Louis. And there is a fine balance between keeping the peace and allowing people to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech and protest. And so we met with some of the leaders of the group and were able to come to an agreement with very little force. Now, we did have arrest in our case. Everyone wasn't pleased with everything that was done. But we didn't have any acts of violence. We were, in a reasonable way, able to allow people to protest and get both of our goals accomplished.

INSKEEP: The police department in Ferguson found itself under criticism for its lack of diversity. You have what's described as a two-thirds black community with three officers on a police force of 52. What have you thought of the police department's efforts to answer those criticisms under fire?

ISOM: Well, I'm not privy to the work that they've done to try to make their police department more diverse. But what I can say is that I do believe in law enforcement diversity - is important. I don't know that simply having a more diverse police department would have resolved this issue because there are many police departments that continue to have problems with the African-American community, minority communities. And it's not necessarily just a Ferguson issue. It's an issue that many cities, small and large, are dealing with in America. And it's really more of a symptom of a deeper problem that we haven't been able to resolve in terms of, how do we interact with law enforcement officials where we foster a partnership and a relationship of trust?

INSKEEP: You're thinking about this as someone from St. Louis who is a cop and is also African-American. How, if at all, does that affect the way you think about this situation?

ISOM: I do have a perspective of both sides. I understand the difficulty and the complexity of trying to maintain order in communities that are suffering. But I also recognize, as an African-American, both the situation in the community - meaning the social environment creates stress - and also the police presence creates stress in the community. And what I find is that both sides become entrenched in their paradigm. And that's difficult. How do we - both sides - look in the mirror and say, OK, what can we do to make this better?

INSKEEP: Chief Isom, thanks very much.

ISOM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's former St. Louis Police Chief Daniel Isom, who is now a professor of policing and community at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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