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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: Was Koster 'absent' from Ferguson? No.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, center, with Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, right, at area high school during height of unrest in Ferguson.
Missouri Attorney General's Office | File photo
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, center, with Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, right, at area high school during height of unrest in Ferguson.

If you’ve paying attention to the discourse in the race for Missouri governor, you’ve probably heard a lot about what Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Koster didn’t do during the unrest in Ferguson in 2014.

In fact, severalRepublican gubernatorialhopefuls accused Koster of being “absent” during the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death. It's the type of message that serves a dual purpose of questioning Koster's commitment to law enforcement and leadership skills. (Republican gubernatorial nominee Eric Greitens told a swarm of reporters after he won the GOP primary that Koster “failed to show up and to lead in Ferguson.”)

It will be up to Missouri voters to decide whether Koster's actions in Ferguson two years ago were effective. But it’s inaccurate to say that Koster was “absent."

Numerous news reports, photographs and tweets show Koster was present during the day and after nightfall in Ferguson. Back in August 2014, St. Louis Public Radio's Jo Mannies reported that Koster “has been in regular contact with law enforcement as part of his job.”She also reported that, according a spokesman, Koster had “visited schools in the north county area in recent days to talk to students and listen to their concerns.”

At a news conference last week, Koster offered more detail on his activities in Ferguson.

“I was the first statewide, elected official at the command center. I was the first statewide, elected official down at the line. I was the first statewide, elected official to cross the line and to interact with members of the community,” Koster said. “I was the first statewide, elected official on the street after nightfall. I held meetings in schools, meetings with elected officials, meetings with the ministerial community.”

It only takes a quick Google search to find a number of instances where Koster was in Ferguson. He made a speech on Aug. 17 at the Greater St. Mark Family Church (which is close to Ferguson) with the Rev. AlSharpton. Among other things, Koster told the crowd that he had come “to pray with you and grieve with you, because you have lost a member of your community.”

“But it’s much more than that,” Koster said at the time. “You have a lost a member of your community at the hands of a member of my community. Not just the Caucasian community, but the law enforcement community. And that is painful to every good-hearted person in this city.” 

And on the evening of Aug. 19, Koster held an impromptu news conference in Ferguson to announce that a grand jury would convene to look into Brown’s shooting death. He relayed that message to protesters who had flocked to Ferguson:

“I know that I was there,” Koster said last week. “I know that thousands of people saw me there.”

'Leadership is about making a difference'

In many respects, it was up to Gov. Jay Nixon to make many of the big decisions after Brown's death — such as declaring a state of emergency or calling up the National Guard. Perhaps that's why Republicans are questioning Koster's leadership during the crisis.

Koster said he didn't recall seeing Greitens during the Ferguson unrest. During a wide-ranging interview with St. Louis Public Radio last week, Greitens said he spent time in Ferguson with a friend, talking to both police officers and protesters. (One of Greitens advisers later said that Greitens and his friend visited Ferguson less than a week after Brown was killed.) 

Eric Greitens answers a question during St. Louis Public Radio's GOP gubernatorial candidate debate.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Eric Greitens answers a question during St. Louis Public Radio's GOP gubernatorial candidate debate in July.

Had he been governor during the Ferguson unrest, Greitenssaid he would have instituted a nighttime curfew sooner.He also said he would have stationed himself at a church to be a sounding board of sorts for members of the community.

“In my capacity at the time, I wasn’t the chief law enforcement officer or the governor,” Greitens said. “But one of the things the Mission Continues did was we brought together hundreds of volunteers and we later did a project for the Ferguson-Florissant School District to make a difference and bring people together to serve.And when you look at someone who’s in any position of responsibility, like an attorney general or a governor, they need to go out and actually make a difference on the ground.”

Greitens stuck with his low opinion of Koster's Ferguson performance after hearing a clip of the attorney general recounting his activities during the unrest. 

Greitens said “leadership is about making a difference.”

“Chris Koster wasn’t there to make a difference,” Greitens said. “There were people that were hurting. People who needed to be heard. You need to go to the front lines and make a difference.

“Look, what you didn’t hear from Chris Koster was ‘I’m responsible.’ That’s what leaders do,” he added. “When things go wrong, you say ‘I am responsible.’ He’s the chief law enforcement officer of the state.”

Greitens reacts to Koster's statement about what he did during the Ferguson unrest.

Law enforcement veterans have a differing opinion of Koster's performance. Former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch tweeted recently that he agreed with Greitens’ assessment of Koster’s performance. St. Louis County Police Officers Association President Joe Patterson said last week during a news conference toutingKoster's endorsement from the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police that the attorney general's “support for our efforts was vital for ultimately getting the situation under control and bringing peace to our streets.”

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.