When we asked listeners for questions they had for Ferguson Police Chief Delrish Moss, we got a lot of questions like this:
— #BlackLivesMattertoo (@DOJSuedFerguson) August 11, 2016
— erbody's grandma (@FRANI20) August 11, 2016
And, finally, gut-wrenchingly, like this:
— J. Phylon Harris (@TheLadyofHarris) August 11, 2016
For the record, the answer to that last question is “No.”
“They should not,” Moss told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh on Thursday. “I understand that question because, when I take this uniform off, I am still a black man. I understand the perceived need for that ‘talk’ all black families across the country have. What I will tell you is that we have a department now, the people who stayed on in this department, are people who are fair-minded and really wanting to work with the community: black, white or whatever. Your black children should not be afraid of white police officers in Ferguson.”
Community policing, officer training, recruitment and department morale are also top of mind for Moss, who said the Ferguson Police Department’s numbers have dropped to 36 from 55 in the past two years.
Moss came to the position after working with the Miami Police Department for 31 years, when the department was no stranger to civil unrest, riots and a consent decree of its own. Since joining the department in May, he’s notably started hosting community forums and has, along with Ferguson police officers, begun visiting people door-to-door since he started in the position in May.
He’s also had several months to get used to demonstrators. Moss said he wasn’t surprised by what happened last week, the second anniversary of Michael Brown Jr.’s death, when a driver hit a protester with her car and gun shots rang out in retaliation on West Florissant Avenue.
“Since I’ve been here, there have been a number of demonstrations,” Moss said. "The planned demonstrations have always been peaceful but, little by little, as the night progresses, a different element comes in with a different agenda and that’s where you have conflict.”
Moss said that the department is still searching for the shooter or shooters from that night’s activities.
For the most part, Moss has found that the people of Ferguson want similar things: “They want good schools, they want a fair and just police department, they want to secure their economic situation,” Moss said.
“I’ve learned that Ferguson has a real good, tight-knit sense of community … with some economic differences and differences along racial lines,” he said.
What does community policing look like in Ferguson?
Moss said his role as a police chief is to set the vision and tone for the department. In his mind, that means instituting practices of community policing. The first changes he’s employed along those lines so far have been:
- Requiring police officers to get out of their car and engage with citizens even when they're not responding to a call or incident. “In those positive engagements, you begin to build relationships for when things do go wrong,” Moss said.
- Increasing the number of school resource officers, so police hear what young people are concerned about in interactions with police.
- Introducing police officers to the community. “We police at the pleasure of the community, not at the peril of the community,” Moss said. “We’ve been listening with regard to meetings, introductions, all sorts of things.”
“Community policing is actually developing relationships with the community and having the community set priorities for you,” Moss said.
This kind of policing is heavily influenced by two incidents Moss recalled from his childhood, where he was stopped by police officers and callously treated.
In one instance, he was shoved against a wall and searched by a police officer who never offered explanation for why he did that, embarrassing and scaring Moss. “He did nothing to restore my dignity,” Moss said.
“Those two things were pivotal to me deciding to become a police officer, because I decided I needed to provide better services to the community than I was getting,” Moss said.
Another part of Moss’ job, he said, is to “rid the department of officers who will not comply, who will not do the job as it is supposed to be done.”
Moss is working on the mandates of the consent decree now, considering training, hiring and diversification of the department in addition to such community policing tactics.
Going forward, Moss said he is working on structural changes within the department. That requires having the manpower to do so … which is an issue for the department.
Recruitment, morale and training challenges
The Ferguson Police Department, as it stands, has 36 police officers. At full capacity, the department would have 55 officers. Moss is working to get back to that number, but recruitment is difficult, given the current public perception of policing in the United States.
Moss is increasing work in the community to recruit more diverse police officers into the force. Previously, the police department had three African-American officers and two female officers. As it stands now, the department has seven African-American officers and three female officers.
“You can’t tell me in a community that’s 67 percent African-American, you don’t have qualified African- Americans,” Moss said.
The sheer number of municipalities competing for police officers, and the disparate resources they have to recruit officers, makes it harder to woo qualified candidates to a place like Ferguson, which has had a national spotlight cast on it.
For the officers who have stayed with the department, morale is another challenge.
“The guys who have stayed on have been working hard and long, but the guys who have stayed have stayed because they want to see changes happen," Moss said.
Moss is working on de-escalation training for the officers and training in community policing for his officers. That’s a big challenge for the department, when there aren’t enough officers in the department to cover for those getting training.
“There are so many training needs that have to be met, that we’re looking to meet,” Moss said. “But you also have to weigh that with the need to patrol the streets of Ferguson. When we have the appropriate numbers, then we can start to move people around and do a lot more training. We’re doing it now, but it is putting a critical strain on police officers because they do work 12-hour shifts, day-in and day-out. You don’t want police officers out on the street and in exhaustion. Because in exhaustion mistakes are made.”
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.