Baumgartner Vaughan: Missouri highway patrol captain shines a light

Aug. 16, 2014 @ 04:19 PM

What does good leadership in times of crisis look like? We saw it late last week in Ferguson, Missouri, when Capt. Ronald Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol came into a contentious situation and the mood changed in no small way because of his leadership. What he did was walk with the people who were upset. He talked with them, not to them. He listened. He hugged. In short, he led.

The shooting death by a police officer of an unarmed African-American young man raises many questions beyond the specifics of the case of one person killing another. Issues will linger long past the investigation, like racism, power and the militarization of local police forces.
Looking at the civil rights movement, what were the races of the police vs. the protestors? We know the answer to that. Using that frame of reference, how is it perceived when the same demographics are at a protest in 2014? Police departments that don’t reflect their citizenry in any manner deserve a closer inspection. You won’t ever have a perfect representation in government or elected officials. But when there is a huge disparity, like in Ferguson, that’s worth examining. Not just race, but gender, too.
So how to build trust? Johnson of the highway patrol is African-American, yes, like the majority of the protestors in Ferguson. But his successful leadership comes from his approach. He said that “we’re in this together.” Did he view the protestors as the enemy worth pointing weapons at because some had, in fact, been looting? Or he did view them as people justifiably upset about what’s going on in their community and meet them where they were? We know he met them on the ground, guns down. Hands up, don’t shoot.
The lesson the rest of the country is seeing from Ferguson – beyond the killing of Mike Brown – is how response to a crisis plays out. If there’s a failure in leadership, remove the leader and bring in someone who knows what they’re doing. The press is allowed to record the police. The citizens are allowed to protest. Laws still need to be obeyed, by those in uniform and out.
If you try to hide – by wearing a face covering or by trying to silence the press – there’s a good chance you’re doing something wrong. Not doing something wrong, no reason to hide. Covering up is an action that takes thought, something that you are doing because you know the other thing you are doing is not what you should be doing.
It’s easier to try to live your life as if what you do could be on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper, because it can. Nobody’s perfect, but we should strive to make the world a better place, not a worse place. Usually that means thinking about people other than yourself. And making our communities better means working out in the open, especially by the government. The light needs to shine for justice to be served. Capt. Johnson has one of those lights.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan may be reached at or 919-419-6563. Follow on Twitter @dawnbvaughan.