Ferguson Mayor Knowles: 'We must do better'; critics want more specifics

Mar 4, 2015

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles provided little indication how his city would respond to a scathing Department of Justice report documenting pervasive racial bias in the city’s police department and municipal court system. But he listed several steps the city was already taking to deal with allegations of bias.

“Today’s report allows the city of Ferguson to identify problems not only in our police department, but in the entire St. Louis region,” Knowles said. “We must do better not only as a city, but as a state, and as a country. We must all work to address issues of racial disparity in all aspects of society.”

That report concluded that “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs,” and the city’s practices soured relations with black residents in and around the city.

While Knowles told a standing-room-only group of reporters that city officials discussed the report with federal officials, he did not say whether Ferguson would enter into a consent decree with the department.

He also didn’t say whether Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson, who wasn’t present at the press conference, would keep his job or whether Ferguson city manager John Shaw – who oversees the day-to-day operations of the police department – would be ousted.

The mayor read from a prepared text and took no questions from reporters.

The DOJ’s report cited instances where some city officials sent out racist e-mails. Knowles said three officials had been put on leave for investigation and one of them already had been fired.

“This type of behavior will not be tolerated in the Ferguson Police Department or with any city employee,” Knowles said.

Knowles listed the changes that Ferguson’s made since Michael Brown was killed, including alterations to the city’s municipal court system and efforts to recruit more minorities to the police force. He also said a task force was working on a plan for a citizen oversight board for police.

The lack of specifics from the mayor upset some critics of Ferguson’s city government, such as Derrick Robinson.

“I think that the whole police department either has to be disbanded or be revamped,” Robinson said. “It is evident that we have officers in Ferguson who are not for the community, who have very high issues with the community, and does not even want to work with the community.”

Ferguson Township Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Bynes wanted to know specifically whether the city would enter into a consent decree with the Department of Justice – not just a recitation of changes the city’s made before the report came out. 

Ferguson Township Committeewoman Patricia Bynes, left, wasn't impressed by Knowles' presentation.
Credit File Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio

She also wanted city officials held accountable,  including Shaw.

“The only person on the hook should not be Chief Jackson – there’s a lot going on in this city,” Bynes said. “And the person who’s absolutely in charge is the city manager. I was absolutely hoping to hear from the city manager, in addition to the mayor.”

Former Ferguson Mayor Brian Fletcher –a candidate for city council – also wanted to hear more specifics about what the report means for Ferguson. But he took a different view of the situation than Robinson or Bynes.

He said he was surprised that Ferguson was the target of the Department of Justice’s ire – and not other municipalities in St. Louis County.

“One of the things the mayor did say is [the city’s] implemented a lot of programs that were the first in the region,” Fletcher said. “So hopefully, I think some good will come out of this and maybe other departments will implement some of these changes – a citizen’s review board for example.”

Nixon, Koster and other state elected officials react

In a statement, Gov. Jay Nixon said the facts "exposed in the Department of Justice’s report on the Ferguson Police Department are deeply disturbing, and demonstrate the urgent need for the reforms I have called for, some of which the General Assembly is now considering, including reforms to municipal courts." 

Gov. Jay Nixon
Credit Bill Greenblatt / UPI

“Discrimination has no place in our justice system and no place in a democratic society," Nixon said. "All Missourians deserve to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect. That is why I will continue to work to enact policies and legislation that promote greater fairness, equality and inclusion in all our communities.”

State Sens. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, and Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said they were "appalled" with the news of the racist emails and other practices from the Ferguson Police Department. The two held a news conference in Jefferson City on Wednesday to announce their support for disbanding the police department and the resignation of Tom Jackson.

"These are people who are accountable for the safety of our communities and they're making jokes about African-Americans," Chappelle-Nadal said. "This is not Jim Crow, this is institutional racism."

The senators suggested that another police department should police Ferguson, but it needs to be a department without a history of racial profiling. 

Nasheed said the two will continue to push for legislation to reform law enforcement practices, such as clarifying the use of deadly force.

"What can we do to rebuild the relationship with community and law enforcement?" Nasheed asked. "I think the first step to building that confidence and bringing back trust within the community and law enforcement – because right now it’s a trust deficit – we must call for the dismantling of the police department." 

Other state and local officials responded to the Department of Justice's reports in mostly supportive way. 

Attorney General Chris Koster
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

Attorney General Chris Koster, whose office does an annual report on the racial breakdown of traffic stops,  sent out a statement to St. Louis Public Radio lamenting how the report “reflects a theme I’ve heard repeated over the past months in countless conversations and meetings: the need for greater understanding and respect between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.”

“My office recently issued policy recommendations to the General Assembly resulting from our roundtable on representative policing, aimed at bringing positive change in the policing of our urban communities,” Koster said. "I remain optimistic that positive reforms are possible. My hope is that the Justice Department’s report proves to be a constructive step forward towards positive reforms and a stronger, fairer, and more compassionate Missouri.”

Secretary of State Jason Kander Tweeted: “The DOJ report confirms that changes must be made in Ferguson. If city leaders don't fix this, the state should.”

Stenger thanks DOJ for its work

In a statement, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger “thanked the Department of Justice for their work on a comprehensive and informative report.” 

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger
Credit File photo by Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio

“I truly hope the Ferguson Police Department will address the numerous concerns identified by federal officials during their investigation,” Stenger said.

Stenger spokesman Cordell Whitlock said that Stenger wasn’t going to speculate whether the report would force Ferguson to dissolve its police department and contract with the St. Louis County Police Department. That process may be difficult, especially if it requires an affirmative vote from the city council and the passage of a citywide referendum.

“If Ferguson approaches St. Louis County for assistance with policing, the appropriate discussions would take place,” Whitlock said.

Beyond Ferguson

One unanswered question from the report is whether the relationship between African Americans and law enforcement will change that much if surrounding police departments don’t have to implement any changes.

Numerous groups – including the Arch City Defenders and the St. Louis University Law School – have raised alarm about how other St. Louis County cities target black residents. Both of those groups are suing St. Louis County municipalities to try to change how their municipal courts operate.

The Arch City Defender Twitter account Tweeted on Wednesday that Ferguson “is not alone in abusing warrants for purposes of generating revenues.” St. Louis University law professor Brendan Roediger, one of the attorneys who called for widespread changes to municipal courts, Tweeted on Wednesday: “The municipal court system does not need to be fixed. It is fundamentally and intentionally oppressive. It simply needs to go.”

In December, Koster expressed concerns that “the level of balkanization, in my personal opinion, is hurting the future prospects of growth in the St. Louis County region and the St. Louis municipal region as a whole.” That was a referencing to how St. Louis County has 90 municipalities, many of which have their own police departments.

He added that “when you have [dozens of] police departments – many of them being so small -- it is very hard, as we have seen, to keep quality at a level that we expect of our police departments.”

St. Louis Public Radio reporter Ray Howze contributed information to this report.