Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice

Ferguson as a Case Study in Persuasion

It was early August of 2014 when Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.  The shooting of Michael Brown quickly spawned protests and public unrest that transfixed the nation – and the world – for several days. Within days of the shooting, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice launched two civil rights investigations – a criminal investigation into the shooting of Michael Brown and a civil pattern or practice investigation to determine whether the Ferguson Police Department engaged in unconstitutional policing practices. 

After a seven-month investigation, the Department of Justice publicly issued two reports that totaled nearly 200 pages, that laid out in great detail the findings and prosecutive decision. 

The criminal investigation concluded that the evidence did not support federal civil rights charges against Officer Wilson.  When this analysis was made public, many people were surprised by the conclusions reached.  A narrative of the incident that supported the opposite conclusion had taken hold after the shooting.  This narrative was rooted in the community’s lack of trust in the police and the justice system in Ferguson-- and it continues to shape public opinion today. 

The second investigation found that the Ferguson Police Department and its justice system engaged in a pattern and practice of extensive and systemic unconstitutional policing practices.  The investigation revealed a deeply polarized community – one in which unlawful police practices and constitutional violations were commonplace; where people felt targeted by those charged to serve and protect them; and where the court and criminal justice system lacked any semblance of procedural fairness or justice – particularly, in the eyes of the African American community.  Again, there were those in the public who were unpersuaded by and disagreed with the findings in the civil investigation.

Exactly why such skepticism-- and a strong alternative version of events were able to take root – requires a closer examination.    

Using the Ferguson reports as a point of departure, a conference at the University of Minnesota, to be held on October 13, 2017, seeks to engage scholars and practitioners with varying experiences and backgrounds in a discussion of their attempts to persuade and their views as to what works, what doesn’t, and why. The participants include many of the Department of Justice officials who conducted the Ferguson investigations and drafted  the reports; journalists who reported on the events in Ferguson; scholars from law, economics, psychology, criminal justice, political science, and history; ; public relations professionals; judges; government officials; and community and religious leaders.  

The reports were prepared and presented in a context where the findings were sure to be strongly challenged by people with contrary prior beliefs and an enormous amount at stake in maintaining those beliefs. The conference examines those reports, using them as a case study in how people are, or are not, persuaded regarding high profile incidents that raise complex and sensitive societal issues.  Since the events in Ferguson occurred, the American public has been engaged in an important national dialogue about policing practices, race, community trust, and public safety.  The dialogue is affected, and too often impeded, by people’s assumptions and biases; both the identification of problems, and the development of solutions, are adversely affected.   

The topic is particularly timely now, when our discourse on charged issues has become increasingly polarized.  Indeed, it sometimes seems as though our society’s ability to have productive dialogues about important social issues is at a nadir.  We don’t know how to productively disagree with each other, and we certainly don’t know how to persuade. 

Starting with a discussion of the Ferguson reports by the authors of the reports, we will then explore the reactions they elicited.  Next, we will consider the ‘science’ of persuasion, as well as attempts, successes, and failures at persuasion in other contexts from the perspective of those involved in persuading and being persuaded in legal and public arenas. The conference should demonstrate that taking a more critical perspective about one’s own assumptions and biases (about, among other things, race, class, and the workings of the police and other governmental institutions) is both warranted and productive.

The conference is free and open to the public, but is currently sold out. You may register for the waiting list. Waiting list seats will be released in order of registration, and registration is required. The conference will also be recorded for viewing on the conference page. An application for 5 standard Continuing Legal Education Credits and 2 Elimination of Bias Credits has been submitted.

For more information, visit the conference page, here.

The conference is sponsored University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute for Law and Rationality, the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, the Human Rights Center, and the Office of Advancement. With additional sponsorship from the University’s Center for the Study of Political Psychology, and the Hennepin County Bar Association.

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