Civil rights oversight body considers possible reforms after death of Michael Brown | St. Louis Public Radio

Civil rights oversight body considers possible reforms after death of Michael Brown

Feb 23, 2015

The Missouri committee that keeps an eye on civil rights violations is the latest body to wade into the discussion about improving police-community relations after the August 2014 death of Michael Brown.

The 12-member Missouri Advisory Committee heard a full day of testimony from academics, law enforcement and community leaders. The committee's chairman, S. David Mitchell, said two public comment periods were the most important part. 

"They let the committee get a full picture of what may be possibly civil rights violations across the state with respect to the use of force, law enforcement and community interactions," Mitchell said.  The real goal, to be honest, is not to be a let's blame the police, but to come up with something so that we can address what seems to be a deep-seated problem." 

Members of the Missouri Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights listen to former educator Robert Miller during a public comment session on Feb. 23, 2015.
Credit Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

Martin Castro, the chairman of the full commission, attended the advisory committee meeting, and said the discussions gave him plenty to think about.

He heard several policy changes to rebuild trust, including more cultural training for police, better minority recruitment practices and more opportunities for the police and community members, especially young African-American males, to see each other in a positive light.

That the discussions and solutions were so familiar to anyone following the conversation after Ferguson perhaps highlighted just how deep-seated the problem is.

"It was not unusual that Mike Brown and Dorian Johnson were stopped," said Rev. Traci Blackmon, the pastor at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Ferguson. "It's still not unusual. I don't think relationships have changed between police and the community at all."

For a dialogue to happen, Blackmon said, both sides have to be willing to engage. In the run-up to the grand jury announcement, she and other faith leaders tried to bring together protesters and law enforcement to develop guidelines that both sides could follow.

"The protest leaders showed up. The law enforcement leaders showed up. The protesters talked. The chiefs didn't," she said.

Are there any immediate steps that can be taken? asked Mitchell. 

Good police need to speak out, said David Nehrt-Flores of the  group Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates. It's also important for police to reduce the level of militarization.

"Don't look at our communities as war zones," Nehrt-Flores said. "Police are not going into battle every day."

Relations in the Hispanic community

Most of the conversation after Mike Brown's death focused on the way police deal with African-American communities. But the problem is just as acute in Hispanic communities as well, say some Hispanics.

The profiling is based on immigration status rather than race, said Alfredo Chavez with Latinos en Axion. The default assumption is that everyone is in the country illegally, to the extent that police are starting to ask for green cards and Social Security numbers.

"We're not arrested. We're deported," Chavez said.

Nehrt-Flores of MIRA said immigrants also have the added burden of language barriers. Not all departments do a good job of making the process accessible to people whose first language isn't English, he said.

Next steps

The advisory committee has another meeting scheduled in Kansas City in August. Its members will then compile a report and send it to the full Civil Rights Commission, a bipartisan fact-finding agency founded in 1957. 

Any eventual recommendations are not binding on any legislative body. But chairman Castro said the commission still has the ability to force change.

"It's certainly up to every governmental entity to make those decisions," Castro said. "But the job of state advisory committees and the U.S. Commission is to shine our light on these issues, be able to put forward strong recommendations, and then ensure that not then ensure that not only the policy makers but also the communities that are represented by those policy makers advocate to make sure those changes occur."

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille