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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Amid Anger Over Brown's Death, Structurally Limited Mayor Vows To Make Changes

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III talks to NPR's Michele Martin on Aug. 28.
Durrie Bouscaren, St. Louis Public Radio

It’s fair to say that Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III has broken the mold for elected leaders in north St. Louis County.    

When he was first elected to his post in 2011, Knowles became one of the youngest mayors in the state. He is also one of the few Republicans who managed to electorally prevail in the heavily Democratic area. And he’s probably the only elected official in Missouri who emerged victorious in an amateur wrestling match against Randy Orton, a north St. Louis County native who became a famous professional wrestler.

But now, Knowles is facing a much steeper challenge: He’s become a prime target of anger after one of his city’s police officers shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. There’s been international scrutiny over Ferguson's government structure. Specifically how its overwhelmingly white leadership doesn’t reflect a majority African-American community. And,at a forum organized by St. Louis Public Radio last Thursday, residents from Ferguson and other St. Louis area cities wanted Knowles to take responsibility and action for what happened after Brown died. 

Inside the sweltering Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Knowles faced intense criticism from audience members. He said he’s going to try to make changes, even though his office is structurally limiting.

“I will say this: I do sympathize and I do empathize as best I can, even with the background I have, with what’s being said,” Knowles told the crowd. “And I hope people will understand that I clearly do want to reach out. That’s what I’ve done.”

Knowles said the City Council has agreed to establish a citizen review board for the police. He also said the city’s police officers are getting cameras — something that wasn’t in place when Brown was shot. (A number of people noted on social media that Ferguson police officers were wearing the cameras during a sizable Saturday protest.)

Knowles made those promises after he faced a nearly unending series of questions about his police department’s conduct in the aftermath of Brown’s death. For instance: Ferguson resident Alexis Templeton told Knowles that “people working directly under you told me that the Missouri Constitution” did not provide for “the right to assemble like in the federal constitution.” She said she had video evidence to back up her claim.

“We can go further as to say we’re being treated like animals,” said Templeton, who attends the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “We don’t have any rights right now. And that’s what we’re out here fighting for. Things that we were given from the day we came out of the womb in America.”

In response, Knowles said: “You just mentioned that you had this on video. And I want to make this vow to you right now. Please give me that video. And if he is an officer under me, I vow to you that he will be disciplined.”

This exchange may showcase the limits of what Knowles can do. Ferguson’s charter specifically bars the mayor or a member of the city council from directing a city employee to do anything. And Ferguson's city manager, not the mayor or City Council, directly supervises the Police Department.  (Although, as Knowles pointed out, a law was recently enacted that allows a super-majority of a city council to fire a police chief.)

When this reporter asked how he could follow through on his promise to Templeton to personally hold police officers responsible for their conduct, Knowles replied: "The dynamic of a city manager-city council form of government is that the city manager answers to us.”

“I have a great relationship with the city manager. He is very committed to having a professional police department as well,” Knowles said. “I know, I don’t think or believe, that any concerns that I would bring to the city manager, he would follow through with. And we continue to do so until the day he doesn’t.”

“And then he’d have to find a new job,” he added.

Near the tail end of the forum, where he was faced withering criticism and direct questions about whether he would resign, moderator Michel Martin asked Knowles if he had heard anything that touched him during an intense two hours. He responded: “I think from the start, it’s been hard to understand because, as was mentioned, I’m white and I do have white privilege. I will say this: It is something that I’ve recognized.”

“I coach wrestling down the street at McCluer South-Berkeley High School. Every fall, 30 to 40 African-American men spend all winter with [me],” said Knowles during the forum, who vowed to stay in office. “I hear the frustrations from them too. We have meaningful conversations with that small group.”

One thing Knowles said he tells his students: “If you ever have [a bad] interaction with a Ferguson officer, I can take care of that.”

County executive candidates support police board

As noted last week, it’s fairly common for unelected administrators to run municipal police departments. It’s a somewhat similar arrangement in St. Louis County, where a five-person Board of Police Commissioners oversees the St. Louis County Police Department. 

Steve Stenger, left, and Rick Stream
Credit Parth Shah | St. Louis Public Radio intern
Democrat Steve Stenger and Republican Rick Stream

St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, suggested during last week’s Politically Speaking podcast that elected officials should have more of a role in running the department — especially after the agency elicited criticism for how it handled protestors.But the two candidates for St. Louis County executive — County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, and Missouri state Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood — aren’t enthusiastic about giving elected leaders more control.

Stenger said “the reason why there is a barrier set up between the county executive and the Police Department is that the authors of the charters wanted there be some type of civilian review of the police department.” He said the board features people from all walks of life, including a minister and the wife of a former St. Louis County executive.

“That doesn’t mean the county executive can’t give public and transparent recommendations to that board, and to the Police Department,”  said Stenger, who added that county executive could temporarily lead the department by calling a state of emergency. “You can also speak volumes through the budget as to what you will fund and how it can be funded. So in that respect, the county executive still has authority over the police department through his or her appointments and through the budget.”

Both Stream and Stenger said it might be best to wait until some time has past to review how the county police department acted during the Ferguson turmoil. However, Stream added, “at this point in time, this organizational setup has been there for many years with the police board overseeing the operations of the county police department.”

“I’m not going to second guess any action that’s been taken at this point in time, because I’m not involved in the decision-making process,” Stream said. “But I’m not sure it’s a good idea to have an elected official then step in and take control of the police department when there’s a police board that’s theoretically overseeing the operations of the police department.”

At least one other official besides Erby, though, suggested it might be time to reexamine how elected officials are structurally detached from overseeing police departments. Former state Sen. Rita Days – who is now the Democratic elections director for St. Louis County – said, in general, “if you have someone who is not directly responsible to the people, then what are the consequences of him not acting in the best faith?”

“You have a situation here that really does not hold an elected person accountable for what is happening,” Days said.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.