Feedback
News

Ferguson Increases African-American Representation

Michael Brown, 18, was gunned down by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014. He lie in the street dead and bleeding on Canefied Drive for several hours. This mural is located in West St. Louis. Phillip Jackson/News21

Editor's Note: This report is part of a project on voting rights in America produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

FERGUSON, Mo. - In the first year after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer, Ferguson voters elected two African-Americans to the City Council, giving black residents almost equal representation in the city for the first time in history.

Up until then, five of the six members of the council, as well as the mayor, were white in a city that is nearly 67 percent black. More than 25 percent of Ferguson voters cast ballots in last year's municipal elections - the highest voter turnout since 1999.

The council also appointed African-Americans as the new city manager, the human resources director and, most recently, a veteran officer from the Miami Police Department as its police chief.

"In general you saw a community that was willing to answer the call," said Wesley Bell, one of the new council members. "We can't deny the fact that oftentimes tragedies are the catalyst for change. Far too often, what happens is that if someone complains or protests or demonstrates, they'll be pacified, but not in a manner that's sustainable."

Brown was killed on Aug. 9, 2014, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer who was responding to a call of a man who had stolen cigarillos from a convenience store. Later that year, a grand jury of predominantly white jurors declined to indict Wilson, inciting days of rioting and protest across the city.

"The reason Ferguson happened the way it happened had a lot to do with people not being a part of the process," said Ferguson Police Chief Delrish Moss, who was sworn in earlier this year. "You have a city that is 67 percent African-American and prior to the civil unrest you had one African-American official."

Bell, who represents Ward 3, Ferguson's most highly concentrated area of black residents, said a black council member had never been elected to represent the ward.

"In my ward in particular, I think we had two and a half times the previous record turnout as far as voter turnout," Bell said. "And even across the city you had a record turnout, so it was encouraging to see people get engaged and get involved in the process."

Since coming to Ferguson, Moss has been going door to door throughout the city introducing himself to residents. Dennis Williams was inside his house on Edgehill Drive talking to his sister on the phone as the new police chief passed by his window. Wary of police, he hung up the phone and went outside.

It was Moss, walking the streets with City Councilwoman Ella Jones, the first black woman elected to the City Council, visited the neighborhood recently. "I'm quite sure a lot of the neighbors like to see you," Williams said to Jones at the doorsteps of his home. "It's good to see that both of you are approachable."

Williams lives not far from where Brown was killed. "The struggle is still there, but since then, they have been starting to put new people in place. Things have started to fall in place," Williams said.

"You can either stay down when you get knocked down or get up, and most people I know around here have been getting back up," he said. "Race can turn any community apart, especially if you have a corrupt police department," Williams said.

After Brown's death, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Ferguson for what it called "unconstitutional law enforcement conduct" within the Ferguson Police Department and the city's Municipal Court.

The department's investigation uncovered "a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct by the FPD and the Ferguson Municipal Court, including: violating the Fourth Amendment by conducting stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause, as well as using excessive force; violating the First Amendment by interfering with the right to free expression and the right to record public police activity; and violating the 14th Amendment by engaging in racial discrimination, in both police and related court activity, as well as violating individuals' due process and equal protection rights in court," DOJ records show.

The suit was settled in March, with an agreement that required the city to establish a civilian review board to address excessive force and police disciplinary practices, among other things, saying the changes are needed to "ensure fundamental fairness demand equal treatment regardless of race."

"The American people must be able to trust that their courts and law enforcement will uphold, protect, and defend their constitutional rights," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement earlier this year. "The filing of this agreement marks the beginning of a process that the citizens of Ferguson have long awaited - the process of ensuring that they receive the rights and protections guaranteed to every American under the law."

"I think that we police at the pleasure of the community," Moss said. "And I think when you forget that, when you decide that you're going to police the community rather than police with the community, I think you lose sight of the bigger picture and you have problems."

The day Moss was sworn into office in May, a group of protesters, angry about the city's overall conditions, told the new chief that they wouldn't be silent.

"I've been listening to them and they have legitimate points," Moss said. "They have things they want to get across, and if you're listening to those things - those things that are reasonable - and implementing them, I think it's critical to people feeling like they are part of this whole thing that is policing."

Just half a mile from where Brown was shot, Brandon Turner stood outside the Prime Time Barber Shop on West Florissant Avenue, where Brown occasionally came for haircuts.

"Today, it's a little better. I mean, the police, they're a little more lax but it's still the county," he said, referring to St. Louis County, where Ferguson is located. "But I feel like it's going to start with police procedure. They can handle us any type of way they want right now, and people aren't standing for that anymore."

Turner said police in Ferguson need more training. "They get out of the car and their hands are automatically on their holster. What's that all about? I'm a person too," Turner said.

Alan Eickhoff, Ferguson's assistant police chief, had been in his job just five days when Michael Brown was killed.

"The one thing I saw when I came here from talking to residents during the protests and after the protests is that our officers need involvement in the community. … That's in the schools and it's in the subdivisions," he said. "To get out and meet people, you got to step out of the car and talk to the people."

Moss, he said, uses social media to reach out to the community - something the department had never done. "We had zero social media with this police department. We have to reach out to where the young people are," Eickhoff said.

Bell and Jones are two outspoken critics of city government.

"I just looked at it as an opportunity as a call to action," Bell said. "What I hope to see is that Ferguson sets the standard for police reform, court reform and community engagement."

For Bell, the shooting of Brown highlighted the lack of African-American representation among police officials and local government officials in predominantly black communities.

"We can't deny the fact that often tragedies are the catalyst for change," Bell said. "When we talk about tensions between law enforcement and African-Americans, young poor people in general, what I would say is that we have to look at these issues in a manner that will effectuate change. Far too often, what happens is that if someone complains or protests or demonstrates, they'll be pacified, but not in a manner that's sustainable."

Jeffrey Pierre contributed to this report.


This report is part of the project titled "In Ferguson, City Increases African-American Representation," produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.