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Policy changes to hold Ferguson accountable

By Kami Chavis Simmons, Justin Hansford and Spencer Overton /Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from the St. Louis American
On December 8, 2014

Protestor’s are calling for meaningful change to address police-community relations.
Credit: Velo_City/Creative Commons

The grand jury has made its decision. Now is the time for city, county, and state officials in Missouri to work to restore the legitimacy they lost through the events surrounding the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. Racially disproportionate stops, excessive court fines, police aggression, and other factors also suggest government is not serving all citizens equally.  

This inequality is also reflected in Ferguson’s political representation. Although 67 percent of Ferguson is African American, most of its elected and appointed officials are White (its city manager, mayor, five of six city council members, police chief, and 94 percent of police officers). A majority of students are Black in the school district Ferguson shares with neighboring Florissant, but six of the seven school board members are White. 

Ferguson was unwillingly thrust into the spotlight, but now it has the opportunity to become a model for reform. As Ferguson moves forward, several state, county, and local solutions could help restore trust and ensure Ferguson is more accountable to its residents. The following are some recommendations from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies:

Strengthen the state racial profiling Act. Missouri currently is one of the few states with a racial profiling act. Although it records racial disparities in police stops, it does not impose penalties. For example, the Missouri state attorney general’s racial disparity index found that in Ferguson, Blacks are more than twice as likely to be stopped, searched, and arrested. However, searches of Ferguson Blacks produce contraband only 21.7 percent of the time, while searches of Whites produce contraband 34 percent of the time.

Require Professional Liability Insurance. In addition to financial accountability for racial profiling, mandating professional liability insurance for police officers could create financial accountability for excessive force. For example, a plan could allow a city to pay the base rate for the insurance, but could make the officer accountable for any premium increase due to excessive complaints or lawsuits filed against that officer.

Enhance use of force monitoring. Local, county, and state officials should develop or improve: (1) use of force procedures and internal investigations of use of force; (2) an early warning system to identify and track officers involved in use of force incidents or other citizen complaints; and (3) an independent citizen review board or independent law enforcement commission with subpoena power. The federal government already has launched a “pattern or practice” investigation which could result in similar reforms developed and implemented with federal oversight. State, county, and city officials, however, should take the lead and work to implement sustainable reforms immediately.

Increase city manager accountability. Ferguson’s unelected city manager serves as its full-time chief executive with the power to appoint, manage, and terminate city employees (including the police chief). In contrast, the elected mayor is a part-time city council member with some ceremonial duties. The city manager currently has an indefinite term, and can be removed only by a supermajority vote of the city council. Limiting the city manager to a definite term (e.g., four years) with citizen input and a majority city council vote for reappointment, could make the city manager more responsive.

Change election timing. Whereas Whites and Blacks in Ferguson were almost equally likely to vote in the 2012 November presidential elections, Whites were almost three times more likely than Blacks to vote in the April 2013 municipal elections (17 percent of Whites and 6 percent of Blacks voted). Changing election timing for mayor, city council, and school board from April to the November presidential elections could save money, boost turnout of residents from all backgrounds.

Other steps could boost accountability as well, including dash police vehicle and body cameras, a probable cause requirement for stops (higher than reasonable suspicion), and better hiring and training procedures. Local government could also be more representative by replacing at-large school board elections with single-member districts or ranked choice voting, early voting (including on weekends), same-day registration, and compliance with federal law requiring voter registration at state offices.

Kami Chavis Simmons is a law professor and the director of the criminal justice program at Wake Forest University. Justin Hansford is a St. Louis University law professor. Spencer Overton is a George Washington University law professor and the interim president of the Joint Center.

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