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Missouri whiffed on a 'Ferguson agenda,' other states stepped up to the plate

Lawmakers in Texas approved a bill providing money and setting guidelines for police body cameras.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Lawmakers in Texas approved a bill providing money and setting guidelines for police body cameras.

At first blush, Texas state Sen. Royce West didn’t seem to have the most hospitable environment to pass legislation providing body camera grants to local law enforcement agencies.

After all, the Texas legislature isn’t brimming with Democrats like West these days. And in contrast to Missouri’s divided government, GOP officials occupy every single statewide office throughout the Lone Star State.

But after cobbling together a coalition of law enforcement groups, civil rights organizations and political leaders, West steered his body-camera grant bill to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. He said high-profile police shootings gave some pause to members of the decidedly conservative legislature. 

'I think people are putting their agendas before human lives. I don't know what's going to happen this summer. I'm scared to death that we're going to have more killings of young people at the hands of police officers.' -- Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City.

“I would assure you that there was a great deal of sensitivity,” said West, D-Dallas, in a telephone interview. “And we were able to put together a bipartisan effort to move it through the Senate – and also get about $10 million appropriated for that particular service.”

After the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray at the hands of police officers spurred demands for public policy changes, some state legislatures answered the call. Legislatures of all political stripes passed bills aimed at strengthening police accountability.

“Most of the comments and actions I’ve seen from legislators have been really balanced and focused,” said Rich Williams, who follows criminal justice issues for the National Conference on State Legislatures.

But one state where dozens of law enforcement-related bills foundered was Missouri, where Brown’s death sparked international protests and press coverage. While lawmakers here passed a sweeping overhaul of the state’s municipal courts system, many other bills inspired by the unrest got lost in the shuffle.

The inability to pass seemingly straightforward measures like changing the state’s use of force law left lawmakers and activists frustrated and angry.

“It didn’t happen in their backyard, so it didn’t matter to them,” said Rasheen Aldridge, an activist and member of the Ferguson Commission. “But it’s sad that other states – it didn’t happen in their backyard like it happened here in Ferguson. But they actually took action and wanted to make change.”

Bipartisan action

The spate of police shootings engendered different public policy approaches throughout the country. Ohio, for instance, created a task force on police-community relations after the death of Tamir Rice. Other states like Arizona and Maryland created commissions to study the best ways to regulate body cameras. 

The Texas State Capitol
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
The Texas State Capitol

Colorado joined Texas in passing bills aimed at expanding police body camera availability. Lawmakers there also passed bills creating a state database of police shootings; requiring detectives from other agencies to investigate shootings; and clarifying the rights of people to film police shootings.

Colorado state Sen. John Cooke sponsored five of the bills Gov. John Hickenlooper signed, including a body camera grant program. He said in a telephone interview that members of the state’s divided legislature wanted to be proactive after the spate of police shootings – but also fair to law enforcement agencies. (Republicans control the Colorado state Senate, while Democrats control the state House.)

“What was driving it here in Colorado was all the news attention and media that Ferguson was getting,” Cooke said.

The Republican lawmaker and former Weld County sheriff said he went to associations representing police chiefs, sheriffs and district attorneys and told them “law enforcement’s taking a beating.” While emphasizing that he did not support some of the Colorado House Democrats’ law enforcement bills, he added there was broad agreement from groups that “we have to do something.”

“And they said ‘look, we can’t just sit back and say no. We realized we to have to work and be proactive on some these bills,’” Cooke said. 

Illinois and Maryland lawmakers created databases to track police shootings. Indiana and Washington mandated officer training for encountering people with mental illness. And New Jersey and Montana placed restrictions on transferring “military-style” equipment to local law enforcement agencies.

“You're given a lot of responsibility, a lot of authority, and what needs to come with that is accountability," Illinois state Sen. Kwame Raoul told the Chicago Tribune about a bill aimed to expand the use of body cameras and training on use of force.

Williams said the flow of legislation through the country transcends partisan lines – as states with Republican- and Democratic-controlled legislatures passed legislation.

“There’s an understanding that police provide a really important service,” Williams said. “But issues are popping up that they want to address and want to pay attention to. And it hasn’t really been partisan. The response has been measured and focused on things they can do to help improve those relationships.”

West said he worked with disparate groups on his body camera bill, including law enforcement organizations, civil rights and civil liberty groups, and powerful Republican officials. He said he talked with Abbott about his body camera proposal when the GOP governor was touring the state after he was elected last year.

“One of the issues that I talked about and my No. 1 priority was putting in place a body camera program. We kind of went through the benefits of such a program,” West said. “Even though he didn’t readily accept it, he did not say he was against it. And so he said, I’m paraphrasing him, that ‘sounds interesting.’ And so with that, we kind of went to work.”

Frustration in Missouri

The success of law enforcement-related efforts in deep red states like Texas may make the lack of legislative success in Missouri even more glaring. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
There wasn't much action on "Ferguson-inspired" bills in the Missouri General Assembly this year, for various reasons.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed cautious optimism that Brown’s death would spur changes. And legislators did approve a wide-ranging overhaul of the state’s municipal courts brought about thanks to national coverage surrounding Brown’s death.

“It is sweeping reform,” said state Sen. Eric Schmitt, a Glendale Republican who sponsored the municipal court bill. “It’s probably the most significant municipal reform in decades. And it’s going to do a lot of good. It will right some wrongs and make right some injustices that have been playing out in municipal courts.”

But efforts to expand availability of body cameras, increase officer training requirements and strengthen racial profiling laws didn’t make it across the finish line. Even a bid to make Missouri’s law on police use of deadly force comply with a U.S. Supreme Court decision didn’t make headway, which deeply angered state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City.

“To know that it is getting stuck because of politics in the Senate is disgusting,” said Chappelle-Nadal last month. “And I think people are putting their agendas before human lives. I don’t know what’s going to happen this summer. I’m scared to death that we’re going to have more killings of young people at the hands of police officers. I don’t know if it’s intentional or unintentional. But we need to change the deadly force statute.”

Chappelle-Nadal was alluding to how the deadly force bill got ensnared in unrelated controversies during the last week of session. The fight over “right to work” in the Missouri Senate and the shocking resignation of House Speaker John Diehl froze the legislature at a crucial point of the session. With the legislature almost paralyzed, the two chambers lacked the time to hash out differences.

There were also philosophical disagreements on specific issues, including whether body camera footage should be available to the public.

“Sheriffs who came up, police officers who came up supported body cameras,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “But when we got that bill to the floor, there was a debate about whether the video would be 'sunshine-able.' So I didn’t want any kind of problem to occur between families and neighbors if there’s a domestic issue. I don’t think your next door neighbor should have that information. So that bill got stuck.”

But members of the Legislative Black Caucus have other theories, especially when some of their bills got stuck in committee. 

State Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, contends the GOP majority didn't pass "Ferguson-related" bills because they didn't want to deal with "black issues. "Let’s be honest," he said. "The Ferguson issue really is a black issue. It’s a racial issue. It sa
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
State Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, contends the GOP majority didn't pass "Ferguson-related" bills because they didn't want to deal with "black issues. "Let’s be honest," he said. "The Ferguson issue really is a black issue. It’s a racial issue. It says that our legislature and Republican leadership does not want to act for black Missourians."

State Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, said GOP leaders like Diehl were actively trying to curry favor with law enforcement groups that traditionally support Democrats. He and other black lawmakers cite Diehl’s contention that there wouldn’t be a “Ferguson agenda” at the beginning of session.

But Butler took things a step further, contending that Republicans are “not willing to act on African-American issues.” He said that “when folks bring up race and some glaring issues when it comes to just cultural differences – even if you use the word cultural differences – Republicans have been known to say, ‘We want to keep that out of it. We want to keep that out of it.’”

“It’s not just legislators,” Butler said. “Folks in Missouri are afraid to have the race conversation – even in the St. Louis area. We’re afraid to talk about race. And it won’t go away just by doing nothing. It won’t go away by not talking about it.”

Wait until next year?

Republican legislators strongly dispute Butler’s contention that they did nothing to address Ferguson. House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said the passage of the municipal courts bill and a school transfer bill were evidence that legislators took the impact of the unrest seriously. 

Richardson enters the House Lounge for an end-of-session press conference on Friday.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said the legislature may revisit issues, such as revising the state's deadly force statute, next year.

“Both were spurred out of concerns surrounding the events in Ferguson,” Richardson said at the end of the legislative session.

Some detractors of the municipal courts bill expressed concern that the legislation won’t even really affect Ferguson that much – since traffic fine revenue isn’t a large part of its budget. But state Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters, said lawmakers were trying to affect policy across city lines.

“Speaker Diehl said at the beginning of session, the House didn’t have a Ferguson agenda. Any law that we apply, we try to apply to the whole state,” Cornejo said. “When you start looking at some of the abusive practices, it’s not just Ferguson. People don’t just live work and eat in Ferguson. They travel all around north county, all across St. Louis County. When you have abusive practices in these courts all over the county, again it’s not something just to focus on what Ferguson has and has not done.”

Richardson and other legislative leaders say they’re willing to work on unfinished business during the next session – especially the deadly force bill. But it remains to be seen whether there will be legislative momentum in 2016, especially since more and more time will have passed since Brown’s death.

West, the Texas senator, said frustrated lawmakers in Missouri could look to Texas for a path forward. He said he made a point of bringing in all interested parties to the table – and compromised to get something beneficial passed.

“You’ve got to put all the participants in the same room and come up with a consensus concerning policy that everyone will support,” West said. “And as long as that policy is reasonable, then my recommendation is to move forward with just that policy – given the fact that you have the support group in that room that will support those policies.”

“If they need to visit with me, I’d be more than happy to visit with them,” he added.

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