The St. Louis County NAACP is launching two new initiatives on the eve of the first anniversary of the death of Michael Brown: one to provide free legal services to children and one to push municipalities to improve police training.
In response to a report released last week by the U.S. Department of Justice, the NAACP branch is starting a program for attorneys to represent children facing long-term school suspension or charges in the juvenile justice system on a pro-bono basis.
That report found that the St. Louis County Family Court discriminates against African American children and fails to provide some children with adequate representation.
“We don’t want to be critics. We want to be agents of change. And we want to use this as an opportunity to partner with our fellow citizens, judges and attorneys to solve the problem,” said Pamela Meanes, program coordinator for the St. Louis County NAACP Legal Redress Committee.
Meanes said right now the St. Louis County NAACP is putting out a call for local attorneys to participate in the program and collecting donations to pay for the administrative fees and court fees associated with representing the children.
“It is our obligation as lawyers in this community to respond to the need and to offer pro-bono services to individuals who are both in an education system in suspension hearings that can’t afford counsel and also those individuals who are locked into a family system that cannot afford counsel,” said Meanes, who is the past president of the National Bar Association.
The county NAACP is also pushing area municipalities to implement mental health screenings for police officers and make diversity and de-escalation training mandatory.
“We believe that if Darren Wilson was equipped with that mandatory de-escalation of force training …he would have responded differently (to Michael Brown),” Meanes said, adding that discretion to use force is influenced by a police officer’s bias.
The St. Louis County NAACP announced the initiatives Friday during a brunch marking the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death.
Numerous area leaders spoke during the brunch, which was attended by a large contingent of law enforcement.
St. Louis County Police plan for anniversary
During the brunch St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said he is optimistic that weekend events planned in Brown’s memory will go smoothly.
“I’m not so naive that I don’t believe that, you know, a few people can’t cause problems and I will be honest with you and tell you that I don’t think that some of the businesses, certainly in the Ferguson area, they can’t really sustain much more and, so we hope that’s not going to happen. We’re going to work as hard as we can to try to provide that protection,” Belmar told St. Louis Public Radio.
Belmar said he is preparing for the weekend by putting more officers on duty and placing them on twelve-hour shifts.
There are anniversary events planned all weekend in and around Ferguson.
Monday is planned as a “Day of Disobedience,” but organizers aren’t saying where or when it will occur.
Governor Nixon reflects
Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Nixon was in north St. Louis County on Friday afternoon to thank members of the Ferguson Commission.
The Democratic governor created the Ferguson Commission last year to come up with policy proposals addressing St. Louis’ racial, social and economic divides. The commission is expected to release its report in mid-September.
After making remarks at the meeting, Nixon told a gaggle of local and national reporters that St. Louis has made progress since Brown’s death – including an overhaul of a much-maligned municipal court system. He also pointed to a summer job program that help thousands of area children find temporary employment.
“It took us a long time to get here,” Nixon said. “These are decades and decades and decades of challenges. And I think there have been some very quick responses to some areas. I mean, for the thousands of kids that were working this summer instead of not working, that was a very dramatic specific change over the summer.”
When asked if policy initiatives would make any difference if St. Louis residents still harbor deep-seated feelings and behaviors about race, Nixon said he’s been a first-hand witness to changing attitudes.
“This is a long march. This is not just a walking up a series of steps or climbing a ladder to another level,” Nixon said. “While it is not as specific as others, it’s been most heartening to me to hear random conversation with folks. Whether it’s at a baseball game or at some other meeting, [they’re] talking about what their opinions were and what some of their potential biases were.”
These types of conversations, Nixon said, are “discussions that never would have occurred in the past, especially in this region where the stratification and differential had gotten very comfortable in many homes and in many minds.”
“Last summer took that comfort away,” Nixon said. “But I’m very proud that Missouri and this region. Once that comfort went away, rather than going back and hiding, instead we’ve chosen to lead. And it’s difficult, but it’s important.”