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Ferguson Officials Deny Any Plans To Change Police Operations

Mayor James Knowles III
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

Thursday turned into a day of denials, as Ferguson officials denied national reports that the police chief is out, and St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch denied that the grand jury had leaked details about its probe into the Ferguson police shooting.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III and the city’s official spokesman blasted as “completely false’’ reports in the Washington Post, New York Times and other national news outlets that Police Chief Tom Jackson was leaving and that the department would be revamped or dissolved.

"The claims of the chief’s departure are COMPLETELY FALSE,” wrote public information officer Tim Zoll in an e-mail to St. Louis Public Radio. "The chief has not been fired, nor has he even been asked to resign.  If and when he ever decides to leave the service of the Ferguson PD, it will be his own choice and not that of anyone else."

In a text message, Knowles said that repeated news accounts about Jackson’s alleged departure have "only strengthened his resolve’’ to stay.

Such frustration appears to stem, in part, from what some officials see as a misunderstanding of Missouri law when it comes to municipalities like Ferguson. 

But sources within the region’s congressional delegation say they do recognize the complexity of the situation, even as area members of Congress discuss what could be done to address some of the protesters’ complaints about local police departments in Ferguson and elsewhere.

The delegation, often at a staff level, has been involved in regular briefings with the federal Department of Justice and the FBI and with local law enforcement officials. Area members of Congress also have been working with state officials, including Gov. Jay Nixon and Attorney General Chris Koster, on developing proposals to address some of the key issues raised during the months of unrest following the Aug. 9 police shooting in Ferguson that killed teenager Michael Brown.

Jay Nixon in Wellston on Oct. 30, 2014
Credit Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio
Jay Nixon in Wellston on Oct. 30, 2014.

Asked at a press conference in Wellston whether he's had any discussions with state or federal leaders to restructure Ferguson's police department, Nixon replied: "I personally have not been intimately or directly involved in any sort of substantive discussions."

He added that changing up Ferguson's police department may become a big focus of the so-called Ferguson Commission, a 15-person panel that will look at systemic issues throughout the St. Louis region.

"We’re busily working today interviewing a number of applicants for the commission," Nixon said. "Issues like that when I initially started out, in the law enforcement side, are issues that are ripe for recommendations and hopefully action in some areas."

"I wouldn’t want to comment on local governance until we have, from my perspective and from the state’s perspective, a broader view of that," he added.

Protocol and procedure

The procedure for changes to the Ferguson police department are clear: Only the City Council can revamp the police department. The city manager oversees the police chief, though Knowles has said that a super-majority of the council could hypothetically fire Jackson. Federal, state or regional officials cannot take any actions involving the police department without the city’s formal approval.

The St. Louis County Police Department provides protection for several county municipalities, which pay for the service. Ferguson would need to enter into a formal agreement with the county should it decide to go that route.

A spokesman for the St. Louis County Police Department said Ferguson officials have made no such request.

"Once a city plans on contracting with us, the city contacts our department indicating they request the St. Louis County Police Department to present them with a proposal for police services," said Sgt. Brian Schellman. "Their board votes on it and passes an ordinance.  Our chief signs it.  The Board of Police Commissioners approve it, then it is sent to the county counselors office for review, they sign it as well as the county executive.  Yes, we would have to hire additional officers."

McCulloch denies leaks, confirms dismissed cases

Meanwhile, McCulloch issued another statement Thursday that underscored that neither his office nor the grand jury were responsible for any of the leaks into its investigation. The 12-person jury has spent weeks listening to testimony, and examining evidence, related to the Ferguson shooting.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch
Credit Courtesy of Bob McCulloch's office

“As exasperating as I and others find the piecemeal release of information and documents, no information or evidence has been released by the grand jury, any individual juror or anyone associated with the grand jury,” McCulloch wrote. “Whoever is releasing this information is doing great disservice to the grand jury process. Additionally, anyone suggesting that the ‘integrity of the entire grand jury process has been destroyed’ is wrong, irresponsible and does a great disservice to the public.’’

Peter Joy, a professor at the Washington University School of Law, backed McCulloch's statement.

"I suspect that anyone who's ever done grand jury duty does not believe that the leaks are coming from the grand jury," said Joy, who defends criminal cases in St. Louis County as part of the school's legal clinic.

He added that no one in McCulloch's office was likely involved with the leaks.

"If a prosecutor were involved in that kind of leak, not only would they lose their job, they would probably face some kind of professional discipline," he said, adding that there are plenty of other sources for the leaks, including the witnesses themselves.

Susan McGraugh, who supervises the clinical defense clinic at the Saint Louis University School of Law, also had no reason to doubt McCulloch's statement. But, she said, she isn't the one who needs convincing.

"I'm not sure it's going to pacify a lot of people that the prosecutor of the office was the one who did the investigation" McGraugh said. "All along, people have been calling for someone who is more neutral to become involved, and this is another area where it would have been a good idea to get a less interested party in charge of the investigation."

Earlier this week, McCulloch also addressed the dismissal of some unrelated felony cases because Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson – the officer involved in the Brown shooting – was unable to appear as a witness.

“Wilson is listed as a witness in approximately 10 of the nearly 4,200 pending felony cases in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County,’’ McCulloch wrote. “After an examination of each case we determined that Wilson is an indispensable witness in five cases. Because we cannot proceed without the testimony of Wilson, those cases have been dismissed.

“Wilson is not an indispensable witness, and in fact, played only a minor part in the remaining cases. Those cases will proceed without Wilson as a witness.”

McCulloch concluded that “neither the cases being dismissed nor the prosecution of those remaining will in any manner affect the investigation or the presentation of the evidence to the grand jury in the shooting death of Michael Brown.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.