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Lawmakers Produce Ideas Responding To Ferguson Unrest — But Can They Deliver?

Missouri State Capitol Building
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Just after the sun set on Nov. 24 — the day that then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson’s fate would be disclosed to the world — Missouri's Gov. Jay Nixon faced a throng of reporters at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. 

Appearing before cameras that would simulcast his words across the globe, the Democratic governor talked  at length about how law enforcement officials were ready to respond to the grand jury’s decision. 

But Nixon wasn’t that willing to reflect on another question: How governmental institutions broke down before and after Michael Brown’s shooting death. That, he said, would be a discussion for another day.

“Our focus is not about what happened over the last three and a half months,” Nixon said. “I think the last three and a half months have provided additional training. It’s provided additional sensitivity and additional knowledge on everybody in front. Our focus today, in the short run here, is to protect lives, protect property and to protect speech. And in the longer run … to find paths for progress.”

The question of what caused governmental failure was haunting — especially because the decision not to indict Wilson sparked yet another bitter example with a night of looting and arson in Ferguson and neighboring Dellwood.

Nixon speaks to reporters on November 24 -- the night of the grand jury decision.
Credit Bill Greenblatt, UPI
Nixon speaks to reporters on November 24 -- the night of the grand jury decision.

The deeper-seated issues that led to the events of that night included a frayed relationship between police and citizens, a vast collection of governmental jurisdictions and cities that depended on ticketing to stay afloat.

Moving forward

But now, lawmakers from both parties appear ready to act, as evidenced by some bills that were pre-filed earlier this month.

“I don’t know what those decisions will be,” said Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, in September. “But it is our job to address any policy consideration that comes out of this.”

While legislators may have the zeal to propose public policy changes to respond to the Ferguson unrest, there’s no guarantee that any of the ideas will pass. Even proposals with a seemingly large amount of consensus — such as whittling down the power of municipal courts — will face opposition from groups like the Missouri Municipal League.

“There’s going to be some pushback on every single one of those issues,” said Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis. “Now, I think there’s more of a stimulus to accomplish something to address the issues in Ferguson. Which one of those issues is going to become front and center, or which two of those issues are going to come front and center? That debate needs to be had.”

"On paper"

In the weeks after Brown died, local and national publications zeroed in on some on the St. Louis region's vexing issues with race, governmental fragmentation and policing. 

Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills
Credit Tim Bommel, House Communications
Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, experienced the aggravation of St. Louis County's municipal courts firsthand.

But this wasn’t a theoretical exercise for Rep. Clem Smith, a Velda Village Hills Democrat who represents scores of tiny cities in St. Louis County. Earlier this year, he told St. Louis Public Radio about how he’s had to fork over cash to pay for tickets close to his home.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever witnessed some of the lines in some of these municipalities on court night. It’s almost like a Six Flags ride,” Smith said. “It’s to the point where people are kind of snaking trying to get into a small court room in order to see the prosecutor and the judge or pay their fines.”

Smith, who is a machinist at the Boeing Company, has been able  to pay his tickets over the years. Some of his constituents, he said, haven’t been as lucky.

“I know one of the quickest ways for a black man to end up in the system is by way of a traffic ticket and not answering that traffic that then becomes a warrant and then jail time,” Smith said earlier this year. “And now you’ve got this record for low-level speeding or whatever it may be. And then it blocks employment opportunity — and maybe some education opportunity.”

Smith and other lawmakers appear ready to take action over this type of situation. Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale,introduced legislation that would lower the percentage of traffic fine revenue a city can incorporate in their budgets.

Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, Nov 11, 2014
Credit Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale

Schmitt said his legislation could repair frayed relationships between citizens and police.

“You have a lot of municipal courts that are being used as revenue generation,” Schmitt said. “And in many ways, placing citizens and police officers in an unfortunate situation where their main course of interaction is with a speeding ticket.”

Rep. Caleb Jones, R-Boone County, said he was alarmed by reports from The New York Times and the Washington Post detailing how some St. Louis area residents were incarcerated after they couldn’t pay a speeding ticket.

“I think that’s a problem. You could lose your job,” Jones said earlier this year. “More importantly, I have a wife and a 1-year-old child. If somebody takes me away for two weeks, that’s an issue.”

Rethinking St. Louis’ structure

While municipal courts are capturing the attention of public policymakers, other legislators are mulling changes to how some county municipalities operate. 

Credit Tim Bommel, House Communications
Rep. Joshua Peters, D-St. Louis, wants to move the date of municipal elections.

For instance: State Rep. Joshua Peters, D-St. Louis, told St. Louis Public Radio earlier this year that he wants to move elections for municipal offices from April to November. He said that might help increase turnout — and perhaps participation — for mayoral races and city council seats. (Peters hasn’t filed such a bill as of this week.)

Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, is reviving legislation that would place minimum standards on municipalities. Originally put forward a couple of years ago by incoming House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town & County, the bill stipulates that a city could be forced to go through a disincorporation process if its policing, financing and budgeting aren’t up to snuff.

Diehl said in an interview earlier this month that the proposal, which went nowhere when it was introduced in 2012, has gained attention in the wake of the Ferguson unrest.

“There have been a lot of legislators that have reached back out to me during the past couple of months and want to try to run with some version of that,” Diehl said. “I don’t pretend that was the perfect bill. But I think it’s a discussion and a step in the right direction on structural things that we can do to fix some of the problems.”

Currently, it’s fairly difficult for a municipality to disincorporate. Citizens would need to gather signatures to place the question up for a vote — a process that may not be feasible for large cities and towns.

Diehl said measures such as Butler’s bills could weed out cities that aren’t performing basic functions of government.

“If you want to be a municipality, you have to have minimal standards of operations,” Diehl said. “That includes passing an annual budget, having audited financial statements, having uniform police officers be the ones that write citations and tickets. It included use of force policies, among a whole host of other things.”

“And if your municipality didn’t comply with that, they could be forced through a process where they were disincorporated or incorporated into another municipality that does meet those basic, minimal, good government standards,” he added.

Policing the police

Others lawmakers are turning their attention to how police departments operate.  Peters, for instance, said he will re-introduce legislation aimed at cracking down on police departments that engage in racial profiling. 

Some lawmakers want to reconfigure how police can use deadly force -- and how they deal with protests.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Some lawmakers want to reconfigure how police can use deadly force — and how they deal with protests.

“It pretty much outlined the fact that if a police department receives so many complaints of having racially profiled an individual or a race of people, then the attorney general of our state would have the authority to come in and withhold state funds and/or take over the police department accordingly,” Peters said.

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, introduced legislation that would alter the state’s use-of-force statute, which became a source of controversy after the grand jury decision was made. She also put forward a bill that would allow the state’s attorney general to investigate officer-involved shootings that result in a death.

And Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University introduced legislation that would prompt the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to look into officer-involved shootings. It’s an idea that’s been embraced by some Republicans — including Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City.

“For prosecutors, there’s the additional consideration of future working relationships with law enforcement,” Barnes wrote in one of his newsletters that was released in late August. “Knowing they will have to work with the same or similar law enforcement personnel in the future, a prosecutor may be less inclined to charge appropriately. The same holds true for law enforcement personnel investigating officers within their own police department. Prosecutors and cops are humans just like us. Try as they might, investigating their own generates intractable problems of bias.” 

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City

Along with a number of other lawmakers, Chappelle-Nadal wants to prompt police officers to wear body cameras and name tags. She also wants to restrict when they can deploy tear gas. 

Earlier this year, Chappelle-Nadal indicated that her legislation was inspired by what she experienced during some particularly violent nights of protests. 

“I was tear-gassed for three hours,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “Had I not been there, those folks in that neighborhood wouldn’t have any credibility on what happened. I had my intern with me and I had a young minister with me. And we videotaped it. I was on the phone with Sen. Schmitt. I was on the phone with a friend from high school. They were all trying to calm me down. I couldn’t breathe.”

“You try being tear-gassed for three hours and see how you feel about that,” she added. “I mean, it’s traumatizing. It truly is. And I have a lot of guts. But let me tell you, not that night I didn’t. Not that night.”

Pushback ahead?

It’s clear from the flood of pre-filed bills and informal ideas that lawmakers have a lot to consider next year when responding to the Ferguson unrest. 

Incoming House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country
Credit Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio
Incoming House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, said that it's unrealistic to expect the legislature to have a "Ferguson agenda" when many of the underlying issues can't be fixed through legislation.

But it’s highly likely some proposals will face opposition. For instance, Jones suggested that some smaller police departments might not be able to afford purchasing body cameras. And the Missouri Municipal League already promised to oppose Schmitt’s bill lowering the percentage of traffic fines a city can keep in its budget.

“I think lowering that threshold will be part of the conversation this year, and I anticipate that we will probably do something to lower the threshold,” said Sifton, who has introduced legislation that would bar cities that incorporate too much fine revenue into their budgets from receive money from the county sales tax system. 

For his part, Missouri Municipal League deputy director Richard Sheets said this in an e-mail on Tuesday:  "We will be working with Sen. Schmitt to draft a reasoned and targeted response to concerns about some municipal courts." 

There’s also a question of whether state statutory changes can heal decades of racial and economic divides. That’s another thing Diehl cautioned earlier this month.

“I think it’s a mistake going into the General Assembly in general or at the beginning of the session saying ‘here’s a Ferguson solution,’” Diehl said. “Let’s be realistic. The things that happened in Ferguson, there’s not a law you could point to that if it were changed or something were done differently, that it would have avoided what happened. What happened in Ferguson is more societal.”

“Are there things up there that the General Assembly can affect from a structural standpoint? Absolutely,” he added. “So those circumstances that lead to where it is today didn’t happen in the course of a week or six weeks or six months. Likewise, it can’t be fixed in a week, six weeks or six months.” 

Gov. Jay Nixon praises the new Boeing facility that will bring 700 jobs to the St. Louis area
Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Nixon expressed some optimism that the legislature could respond to the Ferguson unrest -- especially on changes to municipal courts and policing.

At least one person who is bullish that the legislature can respond next year: Gov. Jay Nixon.

Speaking to reporters three weeks after his Nov. 24 press conference at UMSL, the governor said lawmakers could come to a consensus to fix where government had faltered.

“I think that the municipal courts is one. I think there’s a lot of police training things that I think the police will embrace. I think there are a number of issues like that where progress can be made,” Nixon said. “That’s my focus.”

Lawmakers will return to the Capitol on Jan. 7. They’ll have until the middle of May to start dealing with a generation’s worth of challenges.

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