In the turbulent days before a grand jury decided not to indict a former Ferguson police officer that shot and killed Michael Brown, Gov. Jay Nixon was asked why he needed a commission to figure out what ails the St. Louis region. His answer then was personal. His reaction to the actual report issued by the Ferguson Commission is for the entire state.
Nixon is originally from the St. Louis region – albeit exurban Jefferson County. And he’s been in office for nearly 30 years. So, he was asked, shouldn’t he know what policies were needed to respond to Michael Brown’s death?
Nixon’s reply? “I haven’t lived all of the experiences that a commission like this has.
“I was born in a small town in Jefferson County where the railroad tracks divided the town,” Nixon said last November. “One side lived folks of color and the other side whites. … [The commission members] just have a broad range of experiences that I think melded together have a real opportunity to tackle tough questions that have not been dealt with effectively – or obviously we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Now after months of public hearings and internal debate, the commission performed the task that Nixon requested: Examine the St. Louis region’s divides and inequities and provide a report full of policy recommendations.
And for Nixon, the real work for St. Louis and the rest of the state begins now.
“I commit to you today that these efforts will not be in vain. Our journey will continue,” Nixon said at a press conference at the Florissant Valley campus of St. Louis Community College. “Through the sheer force of our collective will and our personal acceptance of responsibility for our communities’ safety and well being, we will keep moving forward together.”
The roughly 200-page report provides a blunt assessment of St. Louis. It portrays the region as racially divided, and states “time and again … our institutions and existing systems are not equal, and that this has racial repercussions.”
Ferguson Commission co-chairman Starsky Wilson and other commissioners said it was important to lay out the region’s racial tensions and schisms – especially since other “riot commissions” papered over systemic problems over the past few decades.
“It gets tough,” Wilson said. “If we are clear about accountability, if we are serious about racial equity, if we will pursue justice for all, if we place youth at the center of our conversations, and if we really do want all to have an opportunity to thrive it gets tough. But it’s worth it.”
The document provides a host of recommendations to transform how the region polices and educates itself — and its most vulnerable citizens. They include providing outside entities to investigate police-involved killings; more robust investment in early childhood educations; and an overhaul of police training. It also suggests an even further overhaul and consolidation of the region’s municipal courts and police departments.
“I would say it’s very important for our region to focus on some very fundamental underlying issues here,” said Ferguson Commission co-chairman Rich McClure in an interview on Monday morning. “Starsky and I actually started our work together working on education equity. And that’s where we began to understand together how each other thinks and how our region needs to address issues of clear challenges in our educational system, where educational outcomes are different based on the ZIP code and the school district that they attend.
“We as a region need to address these core underlying issues to achieve racial justice,” he added.
Richardson takes stock
With no power to enact any of its recommendations, it’ll be up to governmental institutions and local communities to move the public policy needle. That includes the Missouri General Assembly.
In an interview St. Louis Public Radio's Marshall Griffin on Tuesday, House Speaker Todd Richardson praised commissioners in doing "great work in putting together a comprehensive report." Without getting into specifics, Richardson said there are "a number of things in the report I think the legislature can work on and build some consensus on.
"We’re certainly going to take those recommendations seriously. And we’re going to evaluate them, because we know the work that went into them," Richardson said. "So they’ll certainly have an impact on how we look at things."
Indeed, it’s highly unlikely the GOP-controlled legislature will support some of the suggestions, including expanding Medicaid or raising the minimum wage. And the legislature declined to pass law enforcement bills during this past legislative session – even though other states took action.
"I think if the governor focuses on the areas where we can find some common ground, he’ll be very successful in that effort," said Richardson, when asked what role Nixon would play in getting some of the recommendations passed. "I think if the governor chooses to focus on some of the items in the report that are more partisan, I don’t he’ll be very successful. But we welcome the governor’s input and the opportunity to work with his office on the things we can build consensus on."
When asked what role the Missouri General Assembly played in tackling racial tensions in urban areas, Richardson replied: "It’s a matter of looking at the root of the problems that we have in areas like Ferguson.
"And when I say areas like Ferguson, they’re not even limited to our urban areas," Richardson said. "We have communities across Missouri that feel very isolated economically. They feel very isolated with educational opportunities. And you have communities that have a whole lot of hope that things are going to get better. That’s just as true in parts of rural Missouri as it is in areas like Ferguson.
"And so, I think the most important thing we can do is to try to bring that same sense of opportunity that’s made this country great to areas like Ferguson," he added. "And that’s a difficult challenge. But I think if we’ll focus on areas like education and economic development and opportunities for everyone, we can really do a lot of good work to help not only areas like Ferguson, but areas across the state."
Other reaction to the report from lawmakers and governmental officials was more mixed.
U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said in a statement on Tuesday that he was “very gratified that a number of their core recommendations mirror key elements of federal legislation that I have already introduced in Congress.” That includes appointing an independent prosecutor in all cases where police use deadly force and “transforming how police officers are trained to increase their sensitivity to minorities.”
“The Ferguson Commission has laid out an urgent action agenda that is worthy of our strong support,” Clay said.
The city of Ferguson itself released a statement noting that it “appreciates the hard work and dedication of the commission by interviewing hundreds of community stakeholders throughout the metropolitan area, which included Ferguson residents and many of its business owners.” The statement said the city had already made changes to its police department, municipal court and city government.
But the commission’s recommendations are not really directed specially at Ferguson the city – but rather the entire St. Louis region. And with dozens of towns and cities in St. Louis County alone, state legislative action may be the most likely avenue for policy change.
Some Republicans like Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder to wonder if the report will gather “dust on a shelf.” He and other elected officials – including state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City – have questioned the commission’s cost.
Others took issue with what wasn't in the report. Former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch Tweeted: "A major priority isn't listed in the report: DON'T RESIST ARREST."
But other policymakers were more optimistic. State Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, said he was encouraged that the commission took testimony from people throughout the St. Louis community – not just experts or academics.
“We heard from real people – my constituents. Constituents all across the St. Louis area,” Butler said. “And I think they got some great stuff. I think the legislature has to listen. It has to respond to the real solutions from real people around the state.”
For his part on Monday, Nixon said there were some things that could be done through the executive branch – including formulating new training standards for police officers.
But while noting “there are certainly things the legislature clearly can do,” the governor added “I think we’ve got to be careful that we’re not just framing this in a bill – and that we’re not just framing this in ‘did you pass a piece of legislation?’”
“I ultimately believe that the most significant efforts here are going to be to move the needle on some of these issues so that elected officials of all types, as well as companies and individuals, are comporting themselves in a strong, positive, more sensitive way,” Nixon said.
Focus on the future
Nixon said earlier this month he would use his remaining months in office to push for some of the commission’s policy recommendations. But the subtext of that promise is that somebody else will be succeeding him as governor – and will therefore be responsible for monitoring legislative work that could extend beyond 2016.
Wilson said “the message to all elected officials, it seems to me, is that the citizens of the St. Louis region have come together – nearly 2,000 of them – and given significant attention to critical issues.
“Ultimately they’re going to hold elected officials accountable,” Wilson said. “The issues that are found in this report are community issues. They are the people’s voices coming together, asking them to act. And over the course of the next year, 16 months – they’re going to be asking him about these kinds of issues.”
McClure said some of the issues in the report could even touch a nerve with rural lawmakers that tend to have a big influence on legislative proceedings.
“For statewide officials or candidates, many of these underlying issues are not just urban issues,” McClure said. “If you look at infant mortality statistics for our state, you see a number of counties that are well above the state and national average. And some approach the averages of some of our most challenged areas. If you look at high school graduation rates in some of our outstate school districts, you see challenging educational outcome data. If you look at the question of poverty and poverty rates, you see concentrations of poverty in some of our outstate counties.”
And while the report and commissioners concede change is a difficult proposition, it must happen.
“St. Louis is not a thing. It’s a collection of people – about 2.8 million,” Wilson said. “And Aug. 9 and the days following, the people of St. Louis said something’s got to be different. Led by young people, people from all geographies throughout this region, people from every ZIP code – they said we’ve got to change.
“And we’ve seen some responses to that – I would suggest not enough,” he added. “And how we do business together is determined by public policy.”