As the nation awaited a major legal decision in Ferguson, Missouri, and fears of a new eruption of protest in that city loomed, a Suffolk Law panel considered: Could something similar happen here?

The speakers, hosted by Suffolk Law Professor David Yamada and the school’s student journal Bearing Witness, addressed the issues behind the shooting death of an unarmed black man in the St. Louis suburb by a Ferguson police officer, and the public outcry that followed.

Unarmed Quincy man shot in his car
The Q&A session, held Tuesday, Nov. 18, came days before the grand jury's decision not to indict the officer. Many of the factors leading to the unrest in Ferguson exist here in Boston, said Carlton Williams, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Police have killed unarmed people of color in the state, he said, citing the 2011 death of Mark McMullen, a Quincy man shot in his car in 2011.

Can it happen here?
Saying the shooting was in self-defense, police later determined the officer’s actions were justified.“Can it happen here? Yes, it does,” Williams said. Cities and towns in Massachusetts have also begun using military-grade equipment similar to the kind Ferguson police were criticized for deploying during protests, he said. Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans has resisted militarization, he said, which he applauded.

In Massachusetts, he said, groups have been advocating for racial equality–an effort bolstered by the Ferguson protests.“Young people have been standing up,” he added. “One part of what happened in Ferguson is a positive thing. Predominantly poor people of color got together and said, ‘We don’t want to take this anymore. … We want the same constitutional protections as everyone else.’”

Figuring out how to trust each other
Horace Small, executive director of Boston’s Union of Minority Neighborhoods, said police in Massachusetts, just as in Ferguson, need to address the treatment of residents in communities of color. An antagonistic relationship with residents, Small said, can have a damaging impact.“If law enforcement is supposed to be an integral part of the community, then having that level of distrust because issues in the past have not been dealt with is never a good thing for the community or for anybody,” he said. “How do you go about bridging that and recognize that both communities have to figure out ways to trust each other?”

Growing up in West Philadelphia, he was racially profiled and treated unfairly by police, he said. Youth in some neighborhoods in and around Boston often get the same treatment, he added.“Those encounters frame you and shape your thinking throughout the rest of your life,” said Small.

Knowing when to be lenient
Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes said he has worked to build positive relationships in his city.Kyes said his department partners with over a dozen local groups to connect with the Chelsea population, a majority of whom now identify as Hispanic. He said he learned as a beat cop in Chelsea years ago that knowing people’s names, being lenient about arrests on warrants for misdemeanors and building rapport helps officers do their jobs better.“Does it benefit us in the long run? Absolutely,” he said. “Our mission of policing is becoming narrower and narrower in terms of actual law enforcement–it’s probably 20-25 percent of our job. The other 75 percent is just forming these relationships.”

Armored vehicles sent the wrong message
Kyes also said he was “disappointed” with the militarized police presence during protests in Ferguson. The tank-like armored vehicles and assault rifles he saw used in media coverage sent the wrong message, he said, and local police departments should keep that in mind.“Officers are trained to use the least amount of force necessary,” Kyes said. “Over-response is one of my biggest pet peeves in the world.”