At the second meeting of the Ferguson Commission, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson was supposed to make a multi-faceted presentation on policing – and what changes were being contemplated for his department.
But Dotson’s plans changed in a hurry. He faced intense public antagonism at Monday’s meeting, which focused on the relationship between citizens and police.
The meeting was held at Mullanphy-Botanical Garden Investigative Learning Center in St. Louis’ Shaw neighborhood. It wasn't too far from the spot in Shaw where an off-duty St. Louis Police officer shot and killed Vonderrit Meyers, which has sparked weeks of protests throughout the city. (Police officials say Meyers shot at the officer before he was killed. Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce is examining whether to pursue any charges against the officer.)
Soon after he started his presentation, Dotson faced the ire of a hostile crowd. Some members of the audience shouted at him as he tried to speak, while others turned their backs on him in protests. And several audience members went up to Dotson’s lectern and yelled at him repeatedly.
At one point Dotson – who didn’t answer questions from the press after his presentation – told the crowd: “It’s difficult to have a conversation when one side yells and doesn’t let the other side have a voice.”
In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death, many black residents from in and around Ferguson talked openly about how police had disrespected and harassed them. Numerous local and national news outlets highlighted how some police departments in majority-black towns had primarily white officers. And national publications like the Washington Post and New York Times showcased how some black residents became mired in financial and legal trouble from tickets and fines.
Norma Rhodes told commissioners that she was heartened 40 years ago when she gave birth to a daughter.
But she added when her daughter became pregnant, “I forgot to pray.”
“I now have a 17-year-old grandson,” said Rhodes, adding that he lives in Florida. “He could be anywhere in this country. He would still be under the same halo of horror, really. … I have nothing against the police. Never had a negative encounter. But what I wonder is what efforts are made in the police department to weed out those few officers who have the attitude and psychological issues that are causing all these problems and chaos in our communities.”
Once tensions cooled after Dotson left the building, the remaining members of the audience broke into working groups. They discussed ways to enhance community policing, lessen racial profiling and change when force is used by police officers.
“It’s safe to say that it’s very difficult work,” Isom said. “If it was easy, we already would have accomplished it already. But I think there are opportunities. There are things that happen in sort of the arc of history that give us an opportunity to make some change. And I have to say, we’re in that space right now.”
During the commission’s first meeting, Isom wondered aloud about how some parts of the city embrace police officers – while some neighborhoods are less welcoming. When asked if Monday’s meeting got him any closer to answer to that question, Isom replied: “I think it’s clear that in communities of color that there is a relationship that creates tension.”
“And so, some of the things that I heard from the community was that police departments seemed to have moved away from their goal of community policing,” Isom said. “That hot spot policing has created a strain on some of those relationships. Stop and frisk had created a strain on those relationships.”
“We need to find better ways to introduce officers, connect officers to the networks of the community,” he added. “And there were some very real examples of how citizens believe we ought to go about doing that.”
For his part, Allen observed that commissioners were hearing from a wide range of sources and giving lots of time for the general public to sound off. But he said it’ll ultimately be up to the commission to come up with recommendations to bridge racial and economic divides within the St. Louis region.
“The commissioners are going to be the ones who are going to put their names and their insights into the report,” Allen said. “I actually came hoping to hear a little more from each of the commissioners. And I’ve been hearing a little bit of their character through questioning. But in the end, they’re the ones who are going to tell St. Louis how to fix itself.”
Both McClure and fellow co-chair Starsky Wilson announced that the commission’s next meeting would take place next Monday at St. Louis University’s Il Monastero. The meeting will focus on reconfiguring municipal courts, which have come under heavy scrutiny since Brown’s death.