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Justice Department Gets Earful From Public About Problems With Police

Emanuele Berry | St. Louis Public Radio

Representatives from the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department told an audience of about 200 people Wednesday night that their inquiry into the practices of the Ferguson Police Department, including officer training, patterns of arrest, stops and the use of force, would take time.

But, said the division's Christy Lopez, the department has already started making changes.

“One of the things that we heard at that first city council meeting a couple weeks ago, a lot of people got up to the microphone and said officers are not wearing name plates,” she said. “So we wrote a letter to the chief, we delivered it to him yesterday. We said you have a policy, it says officer need to wear name tags. You need to makes sure that you are following this policy.”

The information session at the St. Louis Community College’s Florissant Valley campus was intended to update the community on the investigation into the Ferguson police. Earlier this month, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson said he welcomed the investigation. This examination is separate from the department's ongoing civil rights investigation into the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

The session at Flo Valley was also an opportunity for resident to speak privately with DOJ representatives about their experiences with the Ferguson police, the St. Louis County Police Department, the juvenile justice system as well as police within schools.

Lopez said that the department's investigation may have an impact on other area police departments.  “We are trying to formulate our findings in a way that will send a message not only to the Ferguson Police Department, but to the other departments in St. Louis County, that if you are doing these same things, be on notice,” Lopez said. 

Before the meeting broke up for private comments, several audience members raised questions about the investigation into Darren Wilson, but Lopez said they couldn't speak to that investigation.

After DOJ representatives addressed the audience, those present were asked to go to tables throughout the room to share their concerns privately. Each table corresponded with one of the areas the DOJ was investigating.

More questions than answers

For some in the audience, the meeting was unsatisfying, leaving more questions than answers.

B.T. Rice, senior pastor of New Horizons Christian Church and first vice president of the St. Louis County NAACP, said he felt what the community wanted out of the meeting was at odds with what the DOJ wanted. 

“I came to this session thinking I would have a better opportunity to get answers and all we get to do is express questions, with no answers,” he said.

Rice said the topics on which the Justice Department collected testimony did not address all of the issues plaguing Ferguson.

“They categorized that you can talk about this and you can talk about that, but there is no place to talk about the other important things that people have on their minds and in their hearts,” said Rice.

Many, though, did take the chance to express their opinions.  The lines to talk to representatives about the Ferguson and St. Louis County police were the longest.

Priscilla Brown waited in line to speak about being arrested by Ferguson police in 2012. Brown said she was 

Credit Emanuele Berry|St. Louis Public Radio
Citizens wait in line to speak with DOJ representatives about the Ferguson Police Department.

  arrested for blocking the street, while dropping off a family member in Ferguson neighborhood late in the evening. She says she’s glad the DOJ is here to hear her story.

“I’m tired of police officers out here abusing power,” Brown said. “I want them to get their just due. I want the justice system to take care of them for what they have done to citizens out here.”

The Ferguson Police department wasn’t the only one citizens complained about.

Rachael Cailliach of Riverview was arrested on the way to the highway demonstration, in which protestors tried to shut down Interstate 70. She said the conditions in the jail were appalling.

“I was only there for two days and two nights and I felt bad leaving people there,” she said. “At one point I asked one of the cops, when did people stop being human to you. He said 'when they got locked up.' Not when they committed a crime, not when they were convicted of a crime. When they got locked up.”

North county resident Starlet Williams says it's good that the Justice Department is investigating Ferguson police, but she’s skeptical that it will have an impact.

“I don’t think this is going to change anything,” she said.  “I wish more young people were here to tell their stories. The youth that are pulled over, humiliated by police -- those guys, they are not here. But I understand, I’m not sure what this will change.”

DOJ representatives did not say how long the investigation will take or when their report would be released.

Meanwhile it was a relatively quiet evening in Ferguson after last night's angry demonstrations and vandalism. A small group protested briefly and without incident outside the Ferguson police department.