If Ferguson becomes 'island of justice,' will it still be in a 'sea of injustice'?
The Department of Justice’s report detailing the excesses of the Ferguson Police Department has prompted plenty of analyses and speculation about whether the town of roughly 20,000 would change its ways.
But Ferguson's fate is not of much interest for someone like Ted Kyles.
Right after Michael Brown was shot and killed, Kyles told St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman that a policeman in Pagedale pulled him over while he was getting a loaf of bread. Kyles said the officer told him he was stopped because of a report of a robbery in Affton, in south county, a few minutes before -- which he said was impossible.
“This guy had his gun drawn. OK? So now, it came over the wire that they had caught the guy,” Kyles said. “You know, I could have been killed and taken away from my family because of something like this. I know it happens. You know, a lot of people don’t think stuff like this can happen. But it can happen to anybody.”
(Pagedale Mayor Mary Louise Carter had not responded to a message as of Monday morning.)
Kyles’ story is a touchstone to a big, unanswered question about Justice's report, which focused only on Ferguson.
Throughout the last seven months, African-American residents from all over the region have told their stories about police harassment and intimidation that has gone on for years. If the Justice Department ends up forcing only one city to changes to its police and municipal court, will the experiences of black St. Louis residents really transform that much?
For St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, the answer is clear: “No, not at all.”
“Ferguson is just a small piece of the puzzle,” French said. “What we saw in August and in September could have happened a mile and a half up the road in Dellwood ... It just happened to happen in Ferguson. But really, we have a culture that exists in that whole area that could really set this thing off again. That frustration still exists. And so if Ferguson became an island of justice, it would still be in a sea of injustice.”
Both before and after Brown's death, protesters, activists and professors have sounded the alarm about law enforcement in places like Pine Lawn, Wellston, Bellefontaine Neighbors, St. Ann and Bel-Ridge. The Washington Post reported troubling incidents in Florissant and Hazelwood.
Groups like the ArchCity Defenders emphasized that problematic policing and municipal courts weren't happening just in north St. Louis County, but also in affluent towns like Ladue.
While Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department would work with other municipalities to alter policing practices, these towns and cities are unlikely to change without pressure or leverage. That’s what worries French.
“I think the DOJ wants this report to spark local change,” French said. “But knowing the dynamics of St. Louis County and the state legislature like we do, the DOJ is going to have to stay and extend their investigation beyond the city of Ferguson.”
French continued, “African-Americans have been saying for a long time that their experience when traveling through these municipalities is that they feel preyed upon.
“In fact, many of these municipalities have created a system where they only survive by enacting a system of taxation by citation that almost exclusively targets African-Americans,” French said. “And so, the state should act. St. Louis County should act. These small municipalities should act. But if they do not, then we’re really going to have to rely on the federal government to do something.”
Tale of two cities
The Department of Justice is not necessarily the only driver of change. The Missouri General Assembly could force St. Louis County municipalities’ hands if they lower the percentage of money from fines they can have in their budgets. And the ArchCity Defenders and officials with the St. Louis University School of Law are suing some cities into force changes in their municipal courts, including Ferguson's.
But some elected municipal leaders don't buy the idea that Ferguson’s woes are reflective everywhere in St. Louis County. For instance, several black mayors have bristled at efforts to consolidate small municipalities or restrict municipal courts.
One skeptic is Normandy Mayor Patrick Green, who said that people like French are painting with a broad brush when criticizing other municipalities.
“The question would be very simply: Were we working on that before Mike Brown? Absolutely yes. Were we making headway on that? Absolutely yes, because three or four of those cities" contract with the Normandy police, said Green.
He has been especially critical of the idea that cities should dissolve their police departments and contract with St. Louis County.
“Basically, people believe basically in the Wal-Mart effect – that the one-stop-shop is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Green said. “Well, we’ve already analyzed that with retail. That’s not always necessarily true. That doesn’t mean you get the best there. It just is convenient. Well, convenience isn’t what law is always about. And neither is democracy or freedom.”
Dellwood Mayor Reggie Jones has a different perspective. His city dissolved its police department and contracted with the St. Louis County Police Department. And he said there are plenty of things to like about the arrangement.
“When you’re in a municipal department, you have very little room for growth if you want to become a sergeant or become a police chief,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of room for growth and promotion in St. Louis County, which means officers come and work a little harder because they know there are more options for growth and opportunities.”
Jones said he believes “the Justice Department was looking to use Ferguson as a spark for other municipalities to start making some changes.”
But he doesn’t know whether that goal will be accomplished if Ferguson doesn’t end up going along with the report’s recommendations.
“That’s going to determine how seriously the other municipalities are going to take it,” Jones said. “Again, if Ferguson doesn’t make any wholesale changes, then maybe other municipalities may not make any changes. But again, if they begin to make some of those major changes, I think you will have some municipalities follow in place as well.”
Wariness about county police takeover
The cost of complying with the Department of Justice’s recommendations could compel Ferguson to dissolve its police department and contract with the St. Louis County Police Department. Some state lawmakers – including state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City – have called for such a move.
So, too, could the passage of state Sen. Eric Schmitt's bill to reduce the percentage of a city's budget that could come from fines.
But that prospect isn’t drawing a lot of enthusiasm from some within the city, including Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III.
Brian Fletcher, a former Ferguson mayor who is running for the city council, also said he would oppose such a move.
“There are some good officers definitely on this police department,” Fletcher said. “I personally know of no one who's offended or mentioned profiling to me during my tenure either as a citizen or the former mayor. It was never mentioned. There was never any mention of quotas for tickets during my tenure whatsoever. And even in our closed sessions discussing budget things like that.”
Ferguson Township Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Bynes said that “a lot of people don't necessarily feel protected so much by St. Louis County Police.”
“But we do have a police board,” said Bynes, who lives in unincorporated St. Louis County. “And if the meetings weren't on Wednesday at 1 p.m., maybe they could get a lot more civilian input. So I think we need to have a very real, good faith effort in working on these issues to engage the public.”
For his part, French said it “is undeniable that St. Louis County Police Department has problems.”
But, French said, consolidating dozens of small police departments could make it easier to effectuate change – and make the comprehensive progress that Holder wanted by issuing his department’s review of Ferguson’s police department.
“We have a choice on either trying to fight this among dozens of small municipalities that quite frankly don’t have the resources to maintain that level of professionalism and high standards,” French said. “Or we can try to centralize it and focus our efforts on St. Louis County Police Department, and try to change and raise the standards of professionalism and how they interact with the citizens of St. Louis on that level.”
“I think it’s better to try to do it with the one large police department, as opposed to trying to maintain these very small municipalities and trying to maintain some levels of professionalism,” he added.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.