St. LOUIS – Earlier this week the Ferguson Commission released its long-awaited report titled Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equality. The 198 page report, which details the roots and reality of racial inequality in the greater St. Louis region, is a balanced, objective analysis of the consequences of racism in the region – a must read for anyone sincerely interested in the “underlying issues brought to light by the events in Ferguson.”
Undoubtedly, “St. Louis does not have a proud history” regarding race relations and racism, the report says, and is “still suffering the consequences of decisions made by our predecessors.” Early on, the report makes a distinction between “racial inequality in our region” and “individual racism,” and indicates that there is no desire to point fingers or call “individual people racist.”
Rather, the report adds, “What we are pointing out is that the data suggests, time and again, that our institutions and existing systems are not equal, and this has racial repercussions. [And] Black people in the region feel those repercussions [disproportionately] when it comes to law enforcement, the justice system, housing, health, education, and income.”
The Commission also points out that this report is a “people’s report,” that it is “directed to the average citizen whose daily lives are affected by the issues we explored, and whose lives will be impacted by the calls to action we make.” Additionally, the report was written “to speak to an audience of average citizens – not lawyers, legislatures, academics, politicians, or policy wonks.”
Further, the report should be considered “A Living Document,” as the Commission intends that it and its findings “stay alive…grow and evolve based on your engagement with it.”
The report outlines a number of “signature priorities,” including:
– Justice for All: The Commission identified priority calls to action for police reform, court reform, and consolidation of police departments and municipal courts, which include the need to address use of force, police training, civilian review, and response to demonstration, as well as sentencing practices, protection of constitutional rights and conflicts of interests in municipal and county courts.
– Youth at the Center: In the area of child well-being, the calls to action address supporting the whole child, ending hunger for children and families, reforming school discipline, and leveraging the influence of schools to improve childhood health, as well as early childhood education, education innovation and school accreditation.
– Opportunity to thrive: The report also has a focus on creating equity in opportunity to thrive, so that all the region’s residents have a fair shot at achieving the American dream. The calls to action in this area address economic mobility, expanding Medicaid, employment, financial empowerment, housing and transportation.
Of special note is the report’s emphasis on the interconnectedness of over-lapping, mutually reinforcing issues being addressed. The report isn’t solely focused on racial disparities within law enforcement. Its canvass is much broader, and in that regard much more nuanced and complete.
The Commission, founded by executive order of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, was born out of the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson in August of last year and the resulting protests, police and national guard response.
As should be obvious, the report does not attempt to specifically address – or argue the validity of officer Darren Wilson’s actions – which resulted in the death of Brown. The report does, however, clearly argue that the “Relationship between law enforcement and the community become[s] strained when force is – or is perceived to be – used to resolve a situation that could have been resolved through alternate means…”
Further, the report adds, “Policies and training on use of force should authorize only minimal amount of force necessary to protect citizen and officer safety, that is proportional to the incident, that brings an unlawful situation safely and effectively under control, and that preserves the constitutional and human rights of all citizens. The use of force toward the lethal end of the continuum should be used only in the rarest, most dangerous of situations.”
The report calls for the following when deadly force is used:
– That the Attorney General serve as the special prosecutor in all cases of police use of force resulting in death.
– That the Missouri Highway Patrol shall be the default agency assigned to create a task force with the requisite training and expertise responsible for leading the criminal investigation in all cases of police use of force resulting death.
– That a the Use of Force Statute for Fleeting Subjects be updated to reflect the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Tennessee v. Garner, which states that a law enforcement officer may not use deadly force to prevent escape unless “the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”
– That a Use of Force Database be created by the state of Missouri and be made publicly available in order to improve department operations, state policy, and keep the public informed of instances of use of force.
– That the Use of Force Policies and Trainings be revised to authorize only the minimal amount of force necessary.
The report also argues for the creation of civilian review boards at the municipal and county level, as well as the development of a comprehensive demonstration response plan, and the elimination of incarceration for minor offenses, as well as the establishment of alternative sentencing options, among other calls to action.
While the reports focus is the on the reality of racial inequality, especially as regards law enforcement, it also addresses the need to promote officer wellness, indicating “that a police officer’s work environment, which includes exposure to potentially traumatic experiences, coupled with a police environment that values stoicism and self-reliance, can prove detrimental to an officer’s mental health,” and can contribute to “high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide and depression, and an impaired ability to effectively enforce the law and interact with community members.”
Undoubtedly, the report’s implications are far-reaching with the potential to dramatically alter community / police relations for the better. Additionally, the report offers a way forward that does not attempt to place blame and / or identify guilt. Rather, the reports goal seems to be directed towards a path of healing, reconciliation and the development of policies and procedures that address the needs of all interested parties – the community and the police – and to the prevention of future conflict.
The Ferguson Commission should be commended for its diligent, thoughtful and forward looking work. It is now the responsibility of community, police and political leaders to identify the means by-which the Commissions finding can be discussed publicly and implemented.
Photo: Commissioners Rasheen Aldridge, an activist, and Kevin Ahlbrand, a detective sergeant with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, talk about their experiences joining the commission and working together towards positive change in the St. Louis region. Forward Through Ferguson report website.