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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.

On the Trail: Ferguson Commission banks on enthusiasm for implementation as work winds down

A focus group moderator writes down participants' thoughts on racial and ethnic relations in St. Louis, after a meeting of the Ferguson Commission.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
A focus group moderator writes down participants' thoughts on racial and ethnic relations in St. Louis, after a meeting of the Ferguson Commission earlier this year.

After months of deliberation and debate, the Ferguson Commission produced roughly 200 initial recommendations — an ambitious output for an entity charged with the job of issuing a report.

But Bethany Johnson-Javoism, the Commission's managing director, said the group’s “calls to action” are purposefully aspirational.

“I’m pretty excited about the momentum that I’m seeing,” Johnson-Javois said. “The number of calls that I’m getting saying ‘Let’s start thinking proactively before the report release about how we can engage in what way.’ And not just the funding, but the infrastructure. How do we think differently about this? No one organization can be tasked to this work forever. It’s going to take individuals and communities and systems working together collectively to do this. And that’s a paradigm shift.” 

Ferguson Commissioner co-chairman Starsky Wilson
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson Commissioner co-chairman Starsky Wilson

From a purely procedural perspective, the recommendations are the outcome of meetings, subgroup discussions and feedback from the public over the last few months. Commission members are working on paring the big list down to about 20 to 30 “signature” items to highlight within final report. (Johnson-Javois says the recommendations that don’t make the "signature" cut will still be included in the final report.)

Commission co-chairman Rich McClure describes the pathway to get to the recommendations as “an exercise in an inclusive democracy in a way that St. Louis really has not experienced it before.”

“Having said that, that engagement has been robust — and it hasn’t always yielded certain consensus.There have been very, intense passionate disagreements about the approach,” McClure said. “But at the end of the day, these calls represent, I think, the best efforts of a collective work of a wide variety of people to come to the table and say these are the things that we think represent the conversations that we should be having about the way to positive change across the board.”

The recommendations include familiar policy initiatives, including changing the state’s use of force statute and implementing more rigorous police training. They also include decidedly out-of-the-box proposals such as:

  • Altering how police departments deal with protests and demonstrations, which includes “consulting with community members, community organizers and law enforcement officials to design a publicly available Demonstration Response Plan.”
  • Consolidating St. Louis County’s police departments, as suggested in a recently produced study from Better Together.
  • Designating the attorney general to be a special prosecutor for police use of force incidents “resulting in death, officer-involved shootings resulting in injury or death, or in-custody deaths.”
  • Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
  • Creating “a youth discounted Metro pass (through age 25) to get to services and jobs, regardless of whether or not the youth is in school or employed.”
  • Developing  statewide "training, best practices and accountability measures for broadcasters, print and digital media outlets in the areas of Trauma-Informed Newsrooms ... bias and systemic context with specific focus on impoverished communities, people of color, and boys and men of color."

“I would say what you see are bold and unflinching recommendations for transformation in both our governance and policing,” said commission co-chairman Starsky Wilson. “And you also see bold and forward-thinking recommendations and innovative recommendations about how we make a better community for the next generation over a longer period of time.”
 'A powerless body?'

Given the breadth of the public policy smorgasbord making up the recommendations, outside reaction hasn’t been universally positive. 

St. Louis Alderman Antonio French talks to 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh on March 17, 2015, at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis.
Credit Alex Heuer / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Alderman Antonio French has panned the Ferguson Commission's effectiveness.

St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, reacted to them by Tweeting: “The Ferguson Commission is a powerless body appointed by the [governor]. Don't confuse calls for action with actual action.” State Rep. Courtney Curtis, D-Ferguson, reacted similarly: “The#Fergusoncommission has no state legislators, what is their legislative strategy? Is the gov going to do everything by exec order?” And some conservatives, such as blogger Duane Lester, dismissed the initial recommendations as “about a million dollars’ worth of social justice ideas.”

These sentiments revive lingering criticism that the commission is a well-meaning, but powerless, entity that will produce a report that  — in Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder’s words — will "gather dust on a shelf." Some of the recommendations — including boosting the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid — have significant local and state political opposition, and including them in a report is not likely to move the needle that much.

When asked about such criticism, McClure said: “We were charged to identify the underlying root causes of social unrest and to make bold, transformative, unflinching recommendations. That doesn’t say get them implemented.

“A commission does not have the power to direct implementation in any way, shape or form,” McClure said. “We have the ability to bring players to the table that can influence implementation. We have the ability to identify accountable bodies, which we have done with literally every one of the calls for action. And we have the ability to set the table for the regional conversation that needs to take place.” 

Ferguson Commission managing director Bethany Johnson-Javois says the frustration in the commission's early meetings shouldn't have been surprising to anyone.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson Commission managing director Bethany Johnson-Javois says people are eager to implement some of the commission's recommendations -- even if they don't make the final cut.

The commission’s core leadership note that many of the recommendations don’t require government action. For instance: One recommendation involves expanding internships for high school and college students, which could be done without government help. Another suggests that financial institutions “provide community development banking and multigenerational financial education.”

McClure and Wilson say that law enforcement and educational leaders are already thinking of voluntarily incorporating some of the suggestions into their everyday work. And Johnson-Javois says some of the people who pitched ideas within the commission’s subgroups are enthused about implementing them – regardless of whether they’re highlighted in the final report.

“They’ve gotten together, convened and are forming synergy,” Johnson-Javois said. “There’s some movement and some conversation that people have worked so hard to design this content that now people are getting excited about the ‘how to implement.’ And so that natural energy that’s built up is what’s already sustaining this beyond an individual or a leader or a commission.”

Low-hanging fruit

Still, when the discussion shifts into governmental arena, especially as it relates to the Missouri General Assembly,  optimism lags.

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

While other states — including conservative ones like Texas — passed major bills altering law enforcement regulations, Missouri did not. So is it really realistic for the legislature to approve ambitious policy changes when they haven’t completed work on the low-hanging policy fruit?

Wilson said ambitious policy change is possible — especially if the coalition that passed a multi-faceted municipal courts and governance bill stays in place.He added, “We have a certain political context in Missouri that may be different from other states and we have to learn to work across aisles in order to advance these solutions.”

“The key is going to be who steps up to move them through the legislature? Who on various sides of the aisle will continue to put together the kind of collaborations and coalitions that we’ve seen around Senate Bill 5?” said Wilson, referring to the municipal courts bill. “While they may seem like low-hanging fruit, none of this is easy.”

Johnson-Javois added the approval of an overhaul of municipal courts and governance was “civil rights legislation” that responded to community concerns. And like many commission members, she cautioned not to expect immediate change once the final report arrives.

“The focus really is on taking these deliberate actions over generations; that’s what it’s going to take,” Johnson-Javois said. “The reason we are where we are is because of a lot of inherited history from Reconstruction to now. And so we’re going to have to dig our way out and see our way out. So the comparison with other states in some ways is not exactly apples to apples, because of our history nature and because of some of the issues that we face.”

“Some of these recommendations are going to take some funding to do. We’re not naïve to that,” she added. “But if you don’t set a vision out there, you’re not going to get there. None of it’s easy. Some of it’s not that hard either. But my perspective is it’s not just the legislature.”

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.