'We have not moved beyond race': Ferguson Commission report details course for a divided St. Louis

Sep 14, 2015

The Ferguson Commission’s final report provides an unvarnished look at how a racially divided St. Louis underserves African-Americans. The report provides a host of recommendations to transform how the region polices and educates itself — and its most vulnerable citizens.

But Starsky Wilson knows he’s venturing into familiar territory. The St. Louis religious leader is the co-chairman of the commission set up to come up with policy recommendations after Michael Brown’s shooting death in August 2014.

When the 18-year-old was killed by a Ferguson police officer, his death set off riots and violence — and posed deep questions about race relations in America. During the commission’s final meeting last week, Wilson talked about the work of political scientist Lindsey Lupo — whose book examined nearly 100 years of “riot commissions” set up after American rebellion and unrest.

Ferguson Commission executive director Bethany Johnson-Javois and co-chairman Rich McClure examine the agenda before the last meeting of the Ferguson Commission.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Many of those commissions failed because they did not tackle latent racial tensions and systemic discrimination. But Wilson and his fellow commissioners say they are taking another path. He pointed to places like Cincinnati where residents looked inward and dealt head-on with their community’s inequities — not just settling for “accommodation and quiet.”

And the commission’s final report, which is set to be publicly released today, pulls no punches about the underlying causes behind last year’s unrest.

“We have not moved beyond race. St. Louis does not have a proud history on this topic, and we are still suffering the consequences of decisions made by our predecessors,” the final report says. “We are not pointing fingers and calling individual people racist. We are not even suggesting that institutions or existing systems intend to be racist.

“What we are pointing out is that the data suggest, time and again, that our institutions and existing systems are not equal, and that this has racial repercussions,” the report says. “Black people in the region feel those repercussions when it comes to law enforcement, the justice system, housing, health, education and income.”

To change the status quo within St. Louis, the report sets more than three dozen “signature priorities.” Many of the ideas revolve around changing law enforcement practices and economic development strategy. Others focus on education policies. While many ideas could be implemented without governmental actions, some of the big proposals will require action from a state legislature that has been hesitant to overhaul of law enforcement.

While acknowledging that policy shifts aren’t easy or comfortable, the report and the commission’s leaders believe it’s time for St. Louis to change.

“We think frankly that the needs and the issues are so compelling here that our region will realize that this is yet another opportunity to come to the table and say, ‘We need to change,’” said Commission co-chairman Rich McClure.

A focus on criminal justice

A Ferguson police officer and police dog stand by a police vehicle outside the Ferguson Police Department.
Credit File photo by Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

At the heart of the report are recommendations to change the region’s law enforcement agencies and municipal courts. Among other things, the report’s signature items include:

  • Bringing in Missouri’s attorney general as a special prosecutor for police-involved killings. The report also recommends using the Missouri Highway Patrol as an investigative agency.
  • Setting up a public database to keep track of police-involved killings around the state.
  • Expanding the amount of police officer training. The report suggests bolstering training regarding social interactions with residents, handling demonstrations and dealing with minority groups.
  • Creating municipal and county review boards of police departments.
  • Consolidating municipal police departments and municipal courts.
  • Treating nonviolent offenses as civil violations — and collecting municipal court debts similarly to collecting civil debts.
  • Creating “Community Justice Centers” that would provide “case management and social work services.” This in turn would give judges and prosecutors “a broad range of alternative sentencing options.”

During an interview on St. Louis on the Air last month, Ferguson Commissioner and former St. Louis police chief Dan Isom said Missouri badly needs law enforcement policy shift – especially when other states are making more progress.

“If we look at ourselves in comparison to other states, we’re behind the curve on police professionalism, accountability and oversight on the state level,” Isom said then. “The reality is we’re going to have make the case that this is important for our community. … It’s important just on a human level for this. But it’s also important for the success for our region and our state.”

Focus on education and poverty

The report's other two sections center on children and economic opportunity. The host of recommendations for schools include changing school discipline policies; establishing school-based health centers that provide “access to mental health, case management and reproductive health;” and expanding early childhood education.

It also says the legislature should expand Medicaid eligibility, raise the minimum wage, crack down on unscrupulous lenders and bolster the amount of low-income housing.

“The response we have seen to the process says that people in St. Louis want to make a difference, and they believe that the region can be better,” the report states. “It also says they want to work together to do it. This report, and the policy changes we have called for, will be part of the legacy of the Ferguson Commission.”

'Dust on a shelf?'

The commission’s report is the culmination of roughly nine months worth of public hearings and other meetings. It doesn’t have the power to implement any of the recommendations. 

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder questioned the Ferguson Commission's effectiveness -- and its costs.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

In fact, many require the backing of a GOP-controlled Missouri General Assembly that almost certainly will be hostile to some of the proposals — especially expanding Medicaid or raising the minimum wage. Lawmakers didn’t adopt some of the law-enforcement proposals when they came up during the last legislative session. 

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican, has long been skeptical of the commission. He openly questioned whether the commission’s work would vanish into history like other studies — such as the Kerner Commission report that came about after racial riots in the 1960s.

While praising individual commission members for their work, Kinder last week questioned if the Missouri Legislature would embrace the proposals. He also has criticized the commission's price tag, including a decision to pay managing director Bethany Johnson-Javois roughly $139,000 a year — which he notes is more than Nixon makes.

"I certainly hope that it will not be another commission report that gathers dust," Kinder said. "But it was reasonable I think at the outset of this to have that suspicion and to question the budgetary outlays, which have been made this process very, very expensive." 

It’s not just Republicans who could be hostile to the commission’s proposals. St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who faced calls to step aside from handling the Brown case, has sharply criticized proposals to bring in special prosecutors for police shootings — calling them impractical and misguided.

“We elect prosecutors in the state of Missouri. And we elect them to do the job, and that includes investigating and prosecuting every case within that jurisdiction,” McCulloch said. “And if you don’t trust the prosecutor to do that, then don’t elect them. Or throw them out at the next election when it comes.” 

Al Gerherdstein is a Cincinnati attorney who helped bring about a legally-binding agreement to change his city's police department. He worries without a court order, there's no guarantee that the Ferguson Commission's work will resonate.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

At least one outside observer worries the commission’s bully pulpit isn’t strong enough to bring about policy change.

Al Gerherdstein is a Cincinnati attorney who helped facilitate a legally binding agreement in his city after a rash of police shootings. Without a court order, Gerherdstein isn’t sure that the commission’s suggestions will go anywhere.

“Blue ribbon commissions generate reports that go into nice bound documents and then go on shelves,” he said. “We spent 20 years, probably 13 different reports and never got anything accomplished. So I hope it’s different here. I mean, if they can come up with a way to implement their recommendations, that’d be great. But we were unable to — we needed a court order.”

Optimism abounds

Still, some commissioners and elected officials remain optimistic that their proposals will find favor with the public. 

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon meets privately with members of the Ferguson Commission at St. Louis Community College - Florissant Valley on Aug. 7, 2015.
Credit Bill Greenblatt I UPI

Nixon says he’ll use his last year in office to push for some of the commission’s recommendations. While he faced immense criticism for how he handled the aftermath of Brown’s death, the governor says the lessons learned from the past year are too important to ignore.

“I do think that the splinter point was whether or not with what happened last summer and into the fall, whether as a state we were going to back up and say ‘problems don’t exist and we’re going to ignore them,’” Nixon said last week. “Or whether we’re going to lean forward and work together to move our state forward.

“I would think like everything involving the legislature, we’ll get some of the stuff done in a year and some the next year. And some the year after that,” he added. “But we’ll be ... finding some of the things that are the most important. I’ll lay those out in pretty concrete way in the fall and the State of the State and whatnot and work to get those things done.”

McClure pointed to the report’s website, which he described as “highly communicative and highly interactive.” It includes contributions from Lindy Drew, a photographer who helped create a site called Humans of St. Louis.

Drew said the report’s website pairs some of the commission’s work and recommendations with stories from ordinary St. Louisans. She says it’s a presentation style that is likely to spur conversation – or direct action to make changes.

A screenshot of the Ferguson Commission's website.
Credit Courtesy of the Ferguson Commission

“Something that the commissioners have always said … is that when the report comes out, they’re excited about it,” Drew said. “But the real work is going to continue after. … We hope that the site and everything that it’s linked to is going to be a platform for people to go to for an information resource. But it’s also [a platform] to have more conversations in their institutions and organizations and with their friends and their family.”

Johnson-Javois, the commission’s managing director, said earlier this year that she’s banking on some of the people who made recommendations to commissioners to follow through on them in their schools, police departments and communities.

“People are getting excited about how to implement,” she said. “And that natural energy that’s built up is what’s already sustaining this beyond an individual, a leader or commission.”

The commission is set to expire later this year. And while the report itself acknowledges that its recommendations may not be the complete answer, it says it sees it as “the best starting point, the beginning of a path toward a better St. Louis.”

“We expect that as we travel, the path will change, and we’ll find ourselves navigating places we couldn’t have imagined,” the report states. “That is the nature of efforts like this.”

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