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What's Next for the Ferguson Police Department?

It's unclear if the recent resignations will result in anything more than a bunch of headlines.

by Justin Glawe
Mar 12 2015, 4:40pm

St. Louis County Police in Ferguson. Photo via Flickr user Jamelle Bouie

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar may be providing a glimpse of the future. Following the overnight shooting of two cops working a protest line in Ferguson, Belmar patiently answered questions from the media Thursday morning. He was cool and calm, collected and measured in a way that former Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson, who announced his resignation yesterday, never was.

The resignation letters that have been piling up in recent days—Ferguson's city manager's and a municipal judge's among them—left the city with a leadership vacuum. For many activists in Ferguson and elsewhere, these new vacancies are the appropriate result of a Department of Justice investigations that found Ferguson cops were engaged in the widespread targeting of African-Americans.

But without the promise of federal oversight—or a comprehensive reworking of laws and regulations passed in public meetings in St. Louis County—it's unclear if the personnel changes will result in lasting change.

"The Justice Department doesn't have the ability to stop everything that's wrong with the courts system in St. Louis County," said University of Missouri law professor Ben Trachtenberg, echoing comments made by Ferguson committeewoman Patricia Bynes following the announcement that Jackson would resign.

"We need to deal with a culture issue here," Bynes said as part of a panel on CNN. "We need to seriously deal with the culture of the police department, of the municipal reports, of the way that the city is run."

While it can't necessarily change the system that has effectively kept minorities in St. Louis County trapped in an elaborate network of fines, fees, and regulations, the DOJ can play a role in reforming the Ferguson Police Department. That task may eventually mean dismantling the law enforcement agency altogether. The recommendations handed down by the agency are more like directives, and if they're not met, Ferguson's police force could cease to exist. That would be precedent-setting, according to David Makin, a research fellow at the Washington State Institute for Criminal Justice.

"Typically, punishments involve withholding federal funds [from law enforcement agencies], going in with oversight, and I guess the extreme would be shutting down a department," Makin told me. "To my understanding, that's never happened."

Law enforcement agencies are usually disbanded only in cases where funding is lacking or absent, with the notable exception of Jennings, Missouri, just a few miles from Ferguson. There, the city council voted to shut down the police department in 2011 after a series of incidents that ratcheted up tensions between the majority white police force and largely black community.

In most instances, Makin noted, police departments that have been investigated by the DOJ try to change their ways. That's the case in Seattle, which on Wednesday learned that four of its top five cops would be replaced as part of an ongoing effort to meet Justice Department recommendations from an investigation that began four years ago.

Seattle police, like Ferguson's, were found guilty of civil rights violations, but the nature of the charges are different. In Ferguson, cops targeted blacks and other minorities in traffic stops that netted much of the city's revenue. In Seattle, police were found to have used excessive force, well, excessively.

Crisis intervention training was part of the department's agreement with the DOJ. But officials within the Seattle police force, at least, appear to be addressing the much talked-about "culture change" that Makin, Bynes, and others have floated since the summer from hell that set off a national debate on policing.

"You can change the policy, but it does nothing. You have to change the organizational culture," Makin said. "Getting rid of the top four command staff is a pretty good way to start it. It's pretty aggressive, but it sends a message."

While much has been made of the racial bias and minority targeting within the Ferguson Police Department, that discovery is just the latest in a line of similar practices found in Cleveland, Los Angeles, Albuquerque, and Newark, among a long list of others. That's not to mention the host of cities and towns in Missouri that appear to be doing similarly awful things to their black citizens. In light of these investigations, and his tracking of criminal justice and law enforcement issues, the discoveries made in Ferguson's case aren't that surprising to experts like Trachtenberg.

"I think a tremendous amount of police departments in America, if subjected to this level of scrutiny, would be shown to have the same patterns and practices [as Ferguson]," Trachtenberg told me. "The Justice Department could have done the same investigation two years ago, and they could have done the same investigation in cities all over America that didn't have a nationally famous shooting, and I think they would have found similar things."

The situation in Ferguson and St. Louis County may not have come to light if not for Brown's death and the protests that followed. Which begs the question: Where else is the targeting of poor and minority communities occurring en masse? Lot of places, apparently. But, just like politics, all police tactics are local.

"It's out in the open now," Malik said. "But the problem is that no one cares about it until you yourself are at the receiving end."

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