In the limbo between Michael Brown’s death and the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the state of the Ferguson Police Department became something of a national obsession.
Case-in-point: Some news outlets spent a great deal of time and resources examining whether Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson would resign – or if his department would be dissolved altogether. CNN went so far to report in late October that Jackson’s resignation was a done deal – which was quickly debunked by officials and the chief himself.
For ArchCity Defenders executive director Thomas Harvey, this singular focus on Ferguson’s police department may have missed the broader picture. He said tensions between law enforcement and citizens go much deeper than a single municipality.
“Certainly there are places that are significantly worse in terms of the treatment of people and in terms of how they unconstitutionally incarcerate people for being poor,” Harvey said last week, while adding that there are problems with Ferguson's approach as well. “And I want to be clear about this: This is not just a north county problem. There are unconstitutional practices going on around our region. There’s a question of volume where it happens in towns that are more reliant on the revenue.”
Harvey may have hit on a central challenge to enacting policy change to the St. Louis region after the Ferguson unrest: the multitude of cities and police departments throughout St. Louis County. The current setup means wholesale change to policing or municipal courts would need to be instituted in dozens of independent jurisdictions to be effective.
During a press conference last week in St. Louis, Attorney General Chris Koster lamented about this reality. He told reporters “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.”
“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,” Koster said.
Some policymakers are thinking broadly about the region's fragmentation and even coming up with ideas for how to change things.
Better Together commissioned a study examining how the region polices itself. Several state lawmakers have proposed legislation that would cap the percentage of traffic fine revenue that can be incorporated in a city budget. And two lawmakers – incoming House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, and Rep. Caleb Jones, R-Boone County – indicated that lawmakers might examine the number of municipalities in St. Louis County.
“This isn’t really Ferguson per se. What you see [in Ferguson is] happening in inner cities and some suburban ring counties,” said Diehl during an edition of the Politically Speaking podcast. “It’s a lack of quality educational opportunities; it’s a lack of economic opportunities; and it’s also probably the municipal structure hurts. Cities that exist just for the sole purpose of collecting fines and fining its citizens, I think, creates a lot of cynicism.”
“Maybe we need to look at policies that get more police out on the streets walking the neighborhoods where there’s more interaction versus sitting in cars ticketing people all the time,” he added.
Koster suggested what he deemed a “higher standards” for police departments. That could conceivably mean consolidating departments or having municipalities contract with the St. Louis County Police Department.
“Whether or not some of these departments had a direct impact on the Ferguson experience or an indirect impact on it, is perhaps in the eye of the beholder,” Koster said. “If raising the standards means consolidating some of them, then that is, in all likelihood, in the best interest in this long run.”
No easy road
Still, there are few easy options at this point to smooth out some of the region’s boundary lines.
For instance, the local elected leaders of individual cities would likely have to decide whether to dissolve or merge their police departments. In Ferguson’s case, contracting with St. Louis County's police department would likely require a citywide vote – which doesn’t have a sure chance of passing.
And Harvey added that dissolving a police department isn’t a magic bullet for a community.
“We have towns where they’ve already lost their police force,” said Harvey, referring to cities like Jennings. “And the problems still exist. And they are handled by the St. Louis County police force and those are still issues of great concern for the members of that community.”
There are plenty of practical pitfalls, especially when it comes to consolidating municipalities. Ferguson Commission member T.R. Carr said last week that the process for disincorporating cities in Missouri is difficult. Such action requires a large amount of signatures and a citywide vote – and, as seen in Uplands Park, isn’t always successful.
An official with the Missouri Municipal League said in 2013 that there doesn’t appear to be a statutory process to dissolve anything below a 4th class city. Many of St. Louis County’s cities – including Ferguson, Wellston and Normandy – do not fall into that category.
“We’ve had numerous reports saying that there are too many municipalities in the St. Louis region,” said Carr. “One of the issues that we have to face is these were created historically. And they can only be disincorporated by residents of those cities.”
For Harvey, making lasting change to police departments and municipal courts will require going through legislative and judicial avenues. It’s one of the reasons why ArchCity Defenders is part of lawsuits against various municipal courts around the region.
“Frankly it needs to come from all parts,” Harvey said. “The courts need to make some changes. I think that the legislature has got a role to play. And our role is to continue to advocate on the behalf of the homeless and the communities of color in our region to make a better, fair, more just society. And if that means suing municipal courts and towns to get them to treat poor people well, then we’ll continue to do that.”