On the Trail: Through turmoil and chaos, Ferguson's new police chief sees opportunity
When Delrish Moss saw the turmoil and chaos unfold in Ferguson, it hit close to home.
Before he was sworn in on Monday as Ferguson’s top law enforcement officer, Moss spent several decades in the Miami Police Department. He said the unrest that followed Michael Brown’s death was reminiscent of what he’s witnessed firsthand in Miami.
“I don’t know that it was that I wanted the job. I kind of felt a responsibility to the job,” Moss said in a Monday morning interview. “Thirty years ago in Miami, we experienced very similar circumstances that occurred in Ferguson. And I thought ‘something about this job reminded me of that and called me to this.’ I thought I offered a unique perspective that would be helpful here.”
Moss beat out several other finalists – including Berkeley’s police chief – to take over the high-pressured and high-profile job. Among other positions in the Miami Police Department, Moss spent time in the agency’s public information unit – something that Ferguson City Manager De’Carlon Seewood said is a big plus.
“You have someone who can come in and kind of communicate our message,” Seewood said. “And that’s extremely important. We need to be able to talk to our residents and talk to the people abroad about everything that’s going on in Ferguson. And making sure that Ferguson has worked toward reforms – and that they are working toward reforms. I want someone who can be that great communicator.”
One way Moss wants to get that message out is having some of Ferguson’s top police officers meet face-to-face with residents. It’s a way Moss plans to bring the long-talked about idea of “community policing” into practical application.
“One of the very first things I’m going to do is I’m going to start staff walks,” Moss said. “And what I mean by staff walks is that the upper staff of the police department, the supervisors of the police department are going to get out and they’re going to start knocking on doors and talking to people. People have answers.
“Now, there’s no magic formula for what community policing is,” he added. “Community policing is the community setting priorities of the police department. But you can’t set people’s priorities if you don’t talk to them and listen to them and understand what their hurts are.”
Under the feds’ thumb?
Moss will be coming into his role after two big developments in Ferguson: The signing of a federal consent decree and the rejection of a property tax hike.
At least one law enforcement observer, former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch, questioned whether Ferguson’s police chief would have much autonomy to act under the consent decree.
“It would be interesting to see if those [Ferguson police chief candidates] would get this agreement out and read it and see what they’re getting into,” said Fitch back in January. “It would probably scare a bunch of them off. However, my advice to them would be ‘it would probably be pretty easy to be a police chief in Ferguson after this, because you don’t have to make any decision.’ You just go to the DOJ agreement and it will tell you what you have to do.”
For his part, Moss said the consent decree “looms large” with “very specific guidelines and very specific timelines.”
“And I don’t think I have a problem with that,” Moss said. “That will give me some sort of timetable. But the consent decree is not the cure all, end all. There are a lot of things that are happening in this community that aren’t even addressed in that consent decree. The only way I’m going to know that is getting out and talking with the people and figuring out what their problems are.
“Now the consent decree will be a guide, but it will not be the totality of the fixes that we make,” he added.
As for how the defeat of the property tax increase would affect his ability to his job, Moss replied: “I think the tax increase that failed certainly offers challenges.” But he still sees the ability for Ferguson “to move in the right direction.”
“Because there’s a lot of things that are very specific in the Justice Department consent decree that have to be done – and you need money to make it happen,” Moss said. “You get what you pay for in terms of services. It’s really disappointing that it didn’t pass, although I understand that there may be reasons behind that.”
'New guy on the block'
After Brown was shot and killed, Ferguson was roundly criticized for lacking diversity in its elected and unelected government. Since that time, African Americans have joined the city’s administrative staff and city council – including the key posts of city manager and police chief.
Moss said when “you have diverse people sitting at the table, you come up with diverse solutions.”
“When you have people who sit at the table who only have one way of thinking or one view, then you get that particular thought,” Moss said. “I think there’s a lot of talent in Ferguson. And I think what’s happened as a result of Michael Brown is we’re getting to see some of that talent actually shine. Be they African American, woman, Asian – whatever. There are a lot of talented people that offer a perspective and it needs to be heard in order to get a good remedy for any ills.”
When asked what his biggest challenge and opportunity would be going forward, Moss said the answer to both was, in part, that he’s “a new guy on the block.”
“Obviously some people are going to push back,” Moss said. “People aren’t going to see things the way that I see them and we’ll have to work with that. … Now that I think that the biggest help is I’m also the new guy on the block. And so, I don’t owe any allegiances to anyone. I don’t have any connections or ties that bind me in terms of what I get to go out and try and do.
“And at the end of the day, if it’s not a Chief Moss – it’s a “Chief Somebody Else,” he added. “But at the end of the day … progress will happen. With me or somebody else.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.