Why Fixing Ferguson Requires Toppling the Many Fiefdoms of St. Louis County

There are 92 municipalities, 82 municipal courts, and 58 police departments in St. Louis County, but consolidating the chaotic hodgepodge is easier said than done.
September 14, 2015, 10:50pm
Photo by Robert Rodriguez/EPA

A long-awaited 198-page report on Ferguson ordered last year by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown offers an unflinching examination of the deep systemic racial inequities in St. Louis County.

The report, published on Monday by the Ferguson Commission, suggests several sweeping policy recommendations to remedy the situation, but observers of the situation on the ground in St. Louis say the most important step will be the most difficult one to take.

Many of the commission's findings on policing, such as misuse of force by police, could be applied in other cities across the country. But, according to Roger Goldman, a leading expert on policing and a professor at the St. Louis University School of Law, what makes St. Louis County unique is that it has, "92 municipalities, 82 municipal courts, 58 police departments in an area where other urban areas would normally have one or two of each of those."

The commission made a specific recommendation to consolidate the chaotic hodgepodge of police departments and municipalities, but state and local officials may be unable or unwilling to actually do anything about it. Part of the problem is there's a financial incentive for St. Louis County's municipalities to maintain the status quo.

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"Because of the governmental structures that have no tax base, either property or sales tax, who are really broke, their way of policing is really arresting people for minor offenses to pay the salaries of the mayors and city council members," Goldman said. "The ideal solution, to me, would be to just have one St. Louis County with one mayor and one or two or three police departments at most. But politically, that is just not feasible."

Beyond fixing the St. Louis County quagmire, the report outlines 189 specific policy calls to action to address the racial inequality that it exists throughout "employment, education, housing, transportation, and the application of justice." These recommendations are as diverse as expanding Medicaid, establishing universal pre-kindergarten, and improving St. Louis' public transportation system.

The commission argued it is essential to identify and hold these specific institutions accountable in order to achieve broad racial equality across the board. The authors said it is not enough to just examine one agency without addressing the reality that race is at the core of the overall issues plaguing St. Louis.

'Their way of policing is really arresting people for minor offenses to pay the salaries of the mayors.'

"Make no mistake: this is about race," the report states. "St. Louis does not have a proud history on this topic, and we are still suffering the consequences of decisions made by our predecessors."

One of those decisions was creating the municipality system, which had the end result of creating fiefdoms where, according to Goldman, the quality of the policing and training is significantly lower because there is no centrally funded or managed police department.

"That causes huge problems because you can imagine the quality of policing in a tiny town that has no money, basically, and they have to raise the money through traffic fines," Goldman said. "You can imagine what the quality of management is, and the quality of the training."

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The 16 members of the commission included members of the court system, clergy, community activists, and business leaders from the surrounding region. The full commission met 17 times since January in public sessions attended by nearly 2,000 citizens, and smaller working groups met nearly dozens more times to draft the report.

One heavy focus of the commission is on police reform, specifically limiting the use of force by police. "The regular use of force has led many citizens to view the police as an occupying force in their neighborhoods, damaging community trust, and making community safety even more difficult," the report said.

Montague Simmons, the executive director of the Organization for Black Struggle People, said these findings come as little surprise to many St. Louisans. Simmons, a leading activist throughout last year's protests in Ferguson, said the real struggle will be how to implement the suggested changes.

If government leaders choose not to act on the report's findings, Simmons said, "that should raise questions about those folks currently holding these offices and their real commitment to seeing democracy flourish in this area."

The report's authors cautioned that restoring trust to the relationship between police and the citizens of Ferguson "will not be easy, nor will it happen quickly." The report calls for use of force by Ferguson police to be limited to the absolute minimum, and suggests establishing an independent civilian oversight board of police, as well as a database to log complaints from citizens. A change in "law enforcement culture" is a necessary part of the healing process for the community, the report states.

The Missouri governor praised the report in a speech to the commission at their final meeting on Monday. "We transformed the angst and pain of protest, and are now embarking on a path toward progress together," Nixon said. "I could not be more proud of our state and this region for embracing these challenges."

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Nixon added that change would not come easy, and said there was still much to be done to fully understand and learn from the events in Ferguson. But others, including State Senator Maria Chapelle-Nadal, have criticized the report for its cost and lack of concrete plans to implement its findings. The managing director of the commission was reportedly paid about $140,000, and the commission spent $975,000 total in taxpayer money, according to Chapelle-Nadal.

The state senator said the report is mostly full of unrealistic recommendations, and slammed the governor for his response to Ferguson. "[Nixon] doesn't understand that he has really strapped an entire community than deserves so more than the bullshit they're getting from him," Chapelle-Nadal said. "He's full of talk. He can't achieve anything, and he hasn't been able to achieve anything."

But for Reverend Starsky Wilson, one of the co-chairs of the commission, the publication of the report on Monday was just one step in a lengthy path to reform. Whether or not that includes a complete overhaul of the political structure of St. Louis County will be up to St. Louisans and the citizens of Missouri.

"The future of the report is in the hands of the people," Wilson said. "There will be elements that move quicker than others but it is a long haul."

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