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No new Ferguson bills on Missouri legislative agenda following Justice Department report

Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio

Neither the Missouri House nor Senate will consider any new bills to address a blistering report by the U.S. Justice Department over the operations of the Ferguson Police Department.

That's because it's now too late to file any new legislation this year.  

The filing deadline in the Senate was last Thursday, Feb. 26. The House filing deadline is tomorrow, March 6, but the House has already adjourned for the week. 

It is possible, however, to add new language to existing bills in the form of amendments.

The Missouri Legislative Black Caucus says the findings of the Justice Department's investigation warrant legislative action.

Caucus chair Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City, said in a statement: "The investigation from the Department of Justice not only validates but shows the necessity for overt judicial and law enforcement reform.....It should now be clear to anyone who cares about justice that a Ferguson agenda is of the upmost importance and must be pursued without delay."

A seven-month federal investigation concluded that the Ferguson police department's and municipal court's practices were pervasively biased against African Americans.

"This is absolutely nothing new," Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, told reporters Wednesday. "What I would say is not only does the chief, Chief (Ron) Jackson, need to resign, but I also agree that the Ferguson police department needs to be disbanded. For the last six months, not only have the mayor and the chief stated there have not been any racial issues, but the veil has been uncovered by this report."

As for existing legislation, Senate President Pro-tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, says a few Ferguson-related bills are being worked on.

"You'll see some debate on the floor (and) some other issues associated with the aftermath of Ferguson," Dempsey told reporters Thursday.

The Senate passed the first Ferguson-related bill this year, back in mid-February. Senate Bill 5 would cap revenues cities and towns can derive from traffic fines at 10 percent in urban and suburban areas, and 20 percent in rural Missouri.  (The limit is now 30 percent, although some municipalities have routinely exceeded it.)

The House version of the bill, HB 554, has been sitting idle for nearly two months and has also not been assigned to a committee. That may indicate that the issue is not a high priority for House Republican leaders.

As for other Ferguson-related legislation, two bills were recently combined into one that may see floor debate in the Senate.

"Sen. (Doug) Libla's got a bill on how you treat the data from body cameras," Dempsey said.  "I don't know that there's consensus on that, but we can bring that to the floor and have a good discussion about what we think the good public policy is."

The bill sponsored by Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, was combined with another bill by Chappelle-Nadal.  In its current form, Senate Bill 331/21 would:

  • Require police to wear visible and accurate IDs while on duty at protests.
  • Any footage from a body camera or other police camera would be considered an investigative report for the state's open records law, BUT:
  • The state would be barred from requiring officers to wear body cameras and from requiring law enforcement agencies to provide cameras to their officers.
  • Recordings from police cameras would be kept for at least 30 days but no more than 90 days, unless they are needed for active criminal investigations or for criminal and civil court cases.
  • Upon request by a county health department, the governor shall authorize counselors to provide services to a region affected by unrest.

The bill was passed Wednesday by the Senate committee on public safety. It would next go to the full Senate for perfection, or, first-round approval, but it has not yet been added to the chamber's calendar.
At the start of the 2015 legislative session, House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, said that his chamber would not have a "Ferguson agenda," telling reporters at the time:

"To the extent that there's an interest in fixing some of the fundamental building blocks that have led to the deterioration of society in certain areas of our state, I think we'll be open to that...but I don't see us being eager just to throw money at a problem and to say 'mission accomplished.'" 

The black caucus is calling on Diehl to reconsider.  Caucus chair Ellington issued the following statement Thursday:

"When an agency is charged with the responsibility of serving and protecting the public, they cannot do it with a biased nature. How can you trust an institution that is supposed to serve and protect when they show a blatant hatred and disrespect to the very people they are sworn to protect? "Viewing the report not only do we see a need for transparent oversight such as video and audio recordings of interactions between law enforcement and the public, we also see a need for drastic court reforms to ensure that the police departments are being utilized for public safety and not as  revenue generating and harassment agencies. "We are disgusted with the findings of racially charged emails and multiple constitutional violations from an institution that is responsible for upholding the law. "In light of these findings, the Black Caucus is hopeful the House speaker will reconsider his position on the opening day of session that there won’t be a Ferguson agenda this year. It should now be clear to anyone who cares about justice that a Ferguson agenda is of the upmost importance and must be pursued without delay. "We are hopeful that the speaker will stand with us to fight injustice and fight for equality under the law for all Missourians, and that he will help us pass bipartisan legislation that will protect all citizens of this state."

So far, Diehl has not responded to requests for comment.  In addition, a spokesman for House Majority Floor Leader Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, says he won't comment on any of the Ferguson-related bills until they are scheduled for debate on the House calendar.  So far, none of them has made it that far in that chamber.

More information on Ferguson-related bills can be found on our legislative bill tracker.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.