Who killed Michael Brown? Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Who killed Michael Brown? Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

With each passing day, the police in Ferguson, Missouri, look more like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight -- except, perhaps, when aiming at an unarmed black teenager. The details of the confrontation that prompted that shooting remain unknown, but the inept response to it has been plain for all the world to see.

Yesterday, the Ferguson police chief backtracked on the commitment he had made to release the name of the officer who on Saturday shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, who apparently refused the officer’s order to move from the middle of the street. The chief cited death threats made against the officer and the department. Those threats, while despicable, were predictable. The chief's about-face only fuels the belief -- prevalent among protesters in Ferguson, and widespread among blacks elsewhere -- that the police cannot be trusted.

In Ferguson, that distrust has also been fueled by the local department’s refusal to release even the most general details about the shooting, such as how many bullets struck Brown. The county prosecutor, meanwhile, has so far declined to release Brown's autopsy. The longer the police and local officials appear to be hiding information, the more tensions will increase.

If one of the main purposes of any police department is to defuse tense situations -- and it is -- then the police in Ferguson are proving themselves to be utterly unequal to the task. Their most visible mistake has been to send heavily armed SWAT teams in camouflage fatigues to stand guard over peaceful protests. The proper response to a lawful expression of outrage over the use of deadly force is not an ostentatious display of armored vehicles and automatic weaponry.

Attempts at intimidation will not work. Nor will closing off airspace to news helicopters, which reinforces the image of a secretive police state. Thanks to social media, plenty of news is getting out. Photos of police dogs barking at crowds conjure up images of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.

The police need to improve their lines of communication -- with protesters and the outside world. That they are overwhelmed is understandable; Ferguson is a small suburb that has never dealt with such a volatile situation.

Local officials could use some help from Governor Jay Nixon, who had been inexcusably absent until he finally surfaced Tuesday evening to plead for calm and patience. That's not good enough. The governor and attorney general must be more forceful, not just in overseeing the response but by engaging with community leaders on some of the local issues just below the surface. Although two of every three Ferguson residents are black, for example, 50 of its 53 police officers are white. There is only one black member on the six-person city council.

There is no question that looting such as occurred Saturday night -- which Brown’s family has denounced -- requires an increased police presence. But it is just as obvious that local and county officials have failed to respond judiciously. A stronger role for both state and federal authorities is necessary -- not only in the investigation, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation will help lead and which the Justice Department will review, but also in keeping the peace in the days ahead.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.