A seemingly understaffed, overworked Ferguson Police Department is sowing unease among the some of the municipality’s residents, though authorities say they want to make sure they’re hiring the right officers.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, several people said the city is less safe because of a depleted police department. Ferguson has been operating with a smaller force for months, especially compared to the months before August 2014, when Michael Brown was shot and killed by then-Officer Darren Wilson.
“We know instinctively that without local law enforcement, we’re wasting our time,” Ferguson resident Steven Hewkin said. “The city will be destined to fail.”
Nick Kasoff, another resident, added that officers are “working long hours,” which he called “a recipe for mistakes.”
“What we need is not a swarm of police officers in front of Ferguson Market,” he said in reference to Sunday night’s protest over a newly released video of Brown at the store. “We need our neighborhoods to be protected like they used to be. I hear gunfire all the time now — you never used to hear that around here. And it’s not protesters shooting those guns off. We have stopped taking the policing of our neighborhoods in our city seriously.”
In response, Ferguson Police Chief Delrish Moss told the council he’s ready to offer several applicants jobs soon. But he emphasized that he’s looking for the right type of officers, not just fill empty slots in his department.
“Out of the 61 applications that we’ve gone through, it would have been easy for me to pick 14 off and then have the numbers right back up, and then sleep good for a couple of nights,” Moss said. “But then one night, I’ll get that phone call. And that phone call will be that a police officer behaved in a way that embarrassed this badge.”
Moss said Wednesday that the Ferguson Police Department had 37 officers, down from 54 at its peak. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in August 2016 that the department's dispatch staff had five full-time employees and 10 part-time employees, down from seven-full time workers. He said he's hoping to hire about 14 officers by the end of the summer.
Moss said it takes anywhere from 80 to 120 hours to process an application — a screening that he says is rigorous and includes, but is not limited to, examining a potential officer’s educational background, criminal history and social media footprint.
“I’m passionate about the job that I do and I’m passionate about being a police chief,” Moss said. “And I’m passionate about making sure the police officers I hire are the best officers for the job. … And you know what? I ain’t perfect. I don’t always get it right. But one of the things you get from me is a commitment to come in here every day, day in and day out, and try to do the best job that I can.”
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles, who faces re-election in the April 4 election, asked Moss whether it would be easier if the city used outside agencies or private companies to help out in applicant background investigations.
Moss replied: “I’m never going to turn down help.”
He then referenced the federal consent decree that Ferguson is under, as a result of Brown's death. That decree imposed substantial changes to how the city’s police department operates, laying out how police officers can perform investigatory stops and detentions, and establishing use of force guidelines.
“I think for what we have, I think we’ve done well to free up people where we can to get a smooth system in place. One that is compliant with the mandates of the Department of Justice,” he said, adding, “Don’t hold me to this because I’m hopeful, but by the end of the summer I think we’re going to be where we need to be. And that’s assuming we don’t lose anymore.”
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