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Forward Through Ferguson Skeptical Federal Bills Would Prevent Police Violence

St. Louis city police officers detain protesters downtown on Sept. 15, 2017 after the acquittal of Jason Stockley was announced.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis city police officers detain protesters downtown on Sept. 15, 2017, after the acquittal of Jason Stockley was announced.

St. Louis-area researchers and analysts for years have advocated overhauling police departments to address officer misconduct and systemic racism. 

In 2015, Forward Through Ferguson recommended dozens of reforms for region’s dozens of police departments. But a 2019 report by the nonprofit group found that major local departments had adopted few of those reforms

Congressional lawmakers in Washington are trying to take on the same problem as police departments nationwide come under renewed scrutiny for violence against black people. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have proposed bills that would implement national changes to police tactics and misconduct reporting. 

Forward Through Ferguson Executive Director David Dwight talked with St. Louis Public Radio’s Kae Petrin about how police reforms in the region have come slowly, and what alternatives he sees to the proposed federal legislation. 

On how many reforms have been made since the Forward Through Ferguson report in 2015:

Very few of them. And that's been made even harder by the fact that we have almost 50 police departments just in St. Louis city and St. Louis County. So it's incredibly difficult to have good standards across the board. We did a report called the State of Police Reform that focused on the Ferguson Police Department, the North County Police Cooperative and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in the city and found that on the top 15 [recommendations] or so that we were looking at, none of them had been completely implemented.

What's preventing departments from making more changes?

Erica Williams is the founder and executive director of A Red Circle; David Dwight is the lead strategy catalyst at Forward Through Ferguson; and Colin Gordon is the author of "Citizen Brown."
Credit File Photo | EVIE HEMPHILL | St. Louis Public Radio
File Photo | EVIE HEMPHILL | St. Louis Public Radio
David Dwight (middle) is the executive director and lead strategy catalyst at Forward Through Ferguson.

I think really, when we see, six years later — after the killing of Michael Brown and Ferguson uprising — so few changes made, it really makes me and has made a lot of people across St. Louis think, “Oh, maybe there's a deeper root cause here for why these changes have not been made.” And I think as we're seeing across the country, there's a real push for us to think more broadly about public safety, and not just about small reforms around the edges to policing.

Which police departments are considering larger changes in response to the current protests against police brutality?

I've been looking to Minneapolis, obviously, thinking about dismantling and rebuilding how they do public safety. Camden, New Jersey, in the last few years also went through a process where their police department was known for quite a bit of corruption and also not being effective. And they did quite a few changes there. The Austin police department had a community campaign where they were really trying to overhaul the union contract and successfully got some changes there. 

In St. Louis, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and the St. Louis Police Officers Association — the collective bargaining agreement is happening right now. And the Ethical Society of Police [union that represents many black officers in the city police department] actually just released information that they're trying to close that contract out at the end of this month. But that contract is always done in secrecy, behind closed doors, really closely held by a small group of public officials and doesn't have any transparency or access or even input from community members into the process.

On whether the proposed federal legislation goes far enough:

No, I don't think so at all. Those are some reforms that might reduce police violence against communities. But I think it's too little, too late. And now is definitely the time for more wholesale changes. There are really exciting examples across the country of non-police first responders that are actually trained in mental health, in other modalities that communities need, and are much more helpful than police officers who are trained more in a violent [way], using deadly weaponry, and are not really equipped to work with community members on the majority of issues that we usually go to the police for. 

On the highest-priority change that city governments could make nationwide:

I would name two things. I think I really want to raise up the divest-invest strategy that is being pushed across the country. We know that the underlying causes of crime are people having access to what they need, whether that's food or housing, et cetera. And we can reduce interactions between police in the community by actually shifting budgets into some of these other services. And then the other thing is, I would really raise up the relationships between police unions and police departments. Police union contracts are often one of the biggest sources of friction with accountability. And can have things written into them that reduce accountability, and can really serve as this force that's really against community members who want accountability for violence that they experience.

Follow Kae on Twitter: @kmaepetrin

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Kae Petrin covers public transportation and housing as a digital reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.