Lessons in leadership from Ferguson: Communicate, educate, serve
A year after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson and the unrest that ensued, many of the major political players continue to reassess, reappraise and reflect.
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-University City, says the turmoil “has really shown a bright light on the staggering divisions we still need to address in this country. And most of that stems from our inability to have an honest, painful conversation about race.”
But while there are stark disagreements on what went wrong and who was a fault, there’s surprising consensus on what needs to be done to improve the region when it comes to racial relations, economic opportunity and educational improvements.
“What became abundantly clear is that we are all in this together as one region; that tragic events in one place are the responsibility of us all,” said St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
Observed St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones: “We should be trying to think outside the box, to use a lame cliché, to see what we can do differently and see what we can do better.”
Jones and Slay are among about a dozen state, regional and local officials and political activists who played major roles during the months of unrest, and who agreed to answer three Ferguson-related questions posed by St. Louis Public Radio.
The participants included two of the “lightning rods” who came under frequent fire for their actions, or lack thereof: Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch.
State Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, contended in one of his answers that the region’s future could hinge on how well all decision-makers follow through on one key test of leadership: “First and foremost, we need to listen.”
What follows is a sampling of responses, which highlight agreement and differences:
In the aftermath of the Ferguson unrest, what did you learn?
- Many lessons centered on a single point: The importance of communication.
State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, was among the most prominent protesters. She said Brown’s death transformed how she did her job – and how she dealt with constituents within her diverse state Senate district, which includes Ferguson.
“I am obviously a legislator. But I am continuously acting as if I am a mother and a consoler,” said Chappelle-Nadal. “There is no playbook when it comes to a human disaster. The only thing that we can depend on is our actions.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who spent a lot of time in Ferguson and held a police roundtable in the fall, said there’s no question that the episode “highlighted the need for personal contact between citizens and elected officials.”
He implied that perhaps there hadn’t been contact soon enough after the Aug. 9 death of Brown, who was shot by a Ferguson policeman. Koster recalled the words of 1980s’ Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O’Neill that “all politics is local. In fact, all politics is personal.”
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger was a member of the St. Louis County Council on Aug. 9. From that particular office, the Democratic official said "you really can't grasp the breadth or depth of issues that we face as a region. ... My ideas and concepts gained real context upon taking office with a more full understanding of the job and the role of county executive," he said.
McCulloch, however, learned a basic fact about 21st-century communications. “You can’t afford to underestimate the power of social media and the 24-hour news cycle,” he said.
“In a matter of minutes on any given day, rumors were flying and they were all over the place out there, and there was just no way to really counteract them,” he recalled. “… You have to be aware of that, and recognize that it is a force.”
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said his city is still “struggling to improve our communication with residents – both as to what we were doing and what we are doing as part of our response.”
- Heightened focus on municipalities and their police departments.
St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City – whose district includes Ferguson – said she learned that policymakers “need to be more vigilant regarding the municipalities and what they’re doing in the municipalities.”
“I think that while we weren’t surprised about the racial profiling and those things, we were surprised to see the numbers,” Erby said. “Somewhere, somehow we need to be looking at municipalities and making sure they’re not taking advantage of the citizens.”
Schmitt was the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 5, which overhauled Missouri’s local-court system. Nixon recently signed the bill into law. Schmitt said his aim was to attack “the predatory practices of many municipalities that only saw citizens as ATMs for bloated government.”
Too many municipalities, he said, had set up speed traps and tossed low-income people into jail for non-payment of minor fines. SB5 is aimed at curbing all that.
But state Rep. Courtney Curtis, D- Ferguson, warned that more needs to be done. “If we don’t hold people accountable, then we get what we have,” he said. “And what we have is not where we could be.”
Where do you think that the state/region fell short?
- Lack of collaboration and leadership, before and after Aug. 9, was a key concern.
Before last August, Slay said, “our state and region largely operated independently and in silos.”
While citing various exceptions, such as the Economic Development Partnership or MSD, Slay said, “There is proof all around us to do more and better together. … We also need to publicize the work that we have been doing, such as our Regional Youth Violence Prevention Plan.”
But Jones, the city treasurer, cited a more serious problem: “No one ever called all the elected officials into a room to say ‘How can we fix this?’ No one led the charge to call us together and call us to a higher order to see what we can do to fix this. That leadership is absent.”
State Rep. Joshua Peters, D-St. Louis, agreed with her sentiments.
“We could have been collective. We could have been cohesive,” Peters said. “We could have had a forefront … in this particular situation that stepped up and say ‘Hey look. There’s been an injustice here. We need to fix it. We need to fix the court system. We need to fix policing. And we need to make sure that justice is brought.”
Erby blamed “how divided that our leadership is.”
Schmitt faulted Nixon, who he contended neither acted quickly enough or deployed enough National Guard troops to prevent wide-spread looting and arson in Ferguson and surrounding areas during the height of the protests.
- Broad dissatisfaction with failed changes in policing
House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, was among several who were disappointed by the General Assembly’s failure to pass a “use of force’’ bill regulating police actions. Koster and Nixon agree that the measure was necessary to put the state in compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Peters and state Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, joined Koster in faulting the General Assembly’s lack of action on law-enforcement bills, including incentives for police departments to get body cameras.
But County Democratic committeewoman Patricia Bynes, whose township includes Ferguson, said, “We don’t just need body cameras. We need the right policies around them.”
Koster emphasized his view that any body-camera mandate also address “privacy concerns regarding the uses of video footage.”
A bigger issue, he added, was the region’s shortage of minorities in police departments, noting that Ferguson’s officers were 95 percent white, while about two-thirds of the community was black. “This disparity contributed to a lack of trust between law enforcement and many citizens,” Koster said.
Nixon, meanwhile, pointed to the lack of certification of most of St. Louis County’s local police departments. SB5, he said, will address many of the policing concerns by mandating certification within six years.
Nixon said the achievements in SB5 cannot be ignored. "Basically, you are ending 'debtors' prisons,'' he said, referring to people jailed because they couldn't afford to pay traffic fines.
The key point, the governor added, is that the court’s bill underscored bipartisan commitment: “Everybody saw we needed to chart a different path forward.”
But Smith, the state representative, disagrees. “I learned that there’s not an appetite from the majority party in this state to do anything pretty much related to any issue that arose from ‘Ferguson,’” he said, referring to Republicans who control the General Assembly. “And it’s pretty disheartening.”
Looking ahead, do you think we need to do more?
- Get more facts to the public
McCulloch said his office needs to do more “to inform public about what a grand jury does” and what it cannot do. “We didn’t do a very good job in years past of educating the public,” he acknowledged.
But the prosecutor added, “If there’s anything good that can come out of this entire situation, it’s the fact that I think the political will is there now to address the issue we have with municipalities … and some municipal police departments. … If you can’t afford to provide appropriate law enforcement to your citizens, then you shouldn’t be in the business of being a municipality.”
Slay contended that communication will be necessary for the region to move forward. “Only through having candid conversations and working with one another can we achieve equity for all our residents. These conversations will lead, if genuine, to transformative action to improve the lives of all our residents.”
- Bipartisan interest in improving public education
House Speaker Richardson joined Slay, Nixon and several legislators in highlighting the need to focus on education – for the future of the state, as well as the region and Ferguson.
Said Richardson: “It will be difficult to really succeed as a state if we cannot give our kids a decent education and the hope and opportunity that comes with it.”
- Creating more jobs in low-income areas
Rep. Smith wants a greater push to find public works and private sector jobs for African Americans. Failing to treat the problem seriously, he said, could induce the region’s best and brightest minorities to go elsewhere.
“I’ve always said my grandparents and my parents came from the South for opportunity up North,” Smith said. “Now their kids and grandkids are going back South, because there’s more opportunity in Texas and these booming economies.”
Curtis said it's goot that more are talking about making north St. Louis a priority for transportation projects and jobs.
But he adds that such promises should have been made long ago, instead of allowing so many jobs to move to west St. Louis County and St. Charles County.
Now that he's assumed office, Stenger said the county has tools to use -- including agencies like the Children's Services Fund and the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. He ticked off a number of programs to improve languishing parts of the county, including significant investment into West Florissant Avenue.
"One of the things that I've learned is just how much we can come together as a community," Stenger said. "And I've learned a great deal about the role St. Louis County and its many resources can play in that space."
- Calls for continued focus on law enforcement.
Peters would like to see independent prosecutors appointed whenever a police officer uses deadly force against somebody. And he wants the General Assembly to focus more on police as well. “ Don’t get me wrong, the court system and what we’ve done … is great,” he said. “But it’s the police reform that we need. And that’s the underlying message of Black Lives Matter.”
Ferguson Councilman Wesley Bell wants to see the city’s Police Department exhibit “community-oriented policing.”
“It has to start from the top down,” Bell said. “If my promotion is based on how many arrests I make or how many tickets I give out, guess what? I’m going to make arrests and tickets. … But if a component of my promotion is the people that I know in the community and the community outreach that I do, guess what? We’re going to see more of that.”
Jones has a long list of public policy priorities to effectively respond to Ferguson, including bolstering mass transit, raising wages in impoverished areas and challenging educational and governmental institutions. But she said changing statutes is only part of the battle -- especially when St. Louisans exhibit deep-seated behaviors and patterns about race.
"One of the main reasons I think why we got here is there is some sort of perceived notions amongst people that black boys and black men shouldn’t be in certain spaces," Jones said. "And who are we to determine what space that each of us is supposed to be in? We need to challenge that notion of ‘this person is out of place or this person is out of place.’ Until we start taking a look and asking ourselves those hard questions of why do I think this way and where did I get it from, I don’t think we’ll ever move forward."
Nixon takes a broader view of what’s needed, citing American society’s longstanding tensions over race and economic disparities. As the state and region learn from Ferguson, the governor said that he’s optimistic.
“I’m hopeful that the painful and difficult moments of the last year, and quite frankly, sometime before that, the focus will lead to public and private and individual growth in the months and years to come,” he said. “Certainly, we’re all in this together.”