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Devin James Discusses Ferguson's Response Plans, His Criminal Record

10.02.14 Devin James said he is still serving as spokesman for the city of Ferguson on a pro-bono basis, though the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership fired him after it learned of his criminal record.
Rebecca Smith

Ferguson officials are working on plans to alert residents in case of future unrest, according to public relations strategist Devin James, who said he still represents the city on a pro-bono basis.

"Say for example, if there is an outbreak of something that goes on tonight and a protest goes from peaceful to violent, what are we supposed to tell residents to do? Are we supposed to tell them to evacuate, the National Guard is coming in? So a lot of those type of conversations are what they're working on now," James said.

City officials are preparing for all possible outcomes of the grand jury's investigation into the shooting death of Michael Brown, James said.

"I'm just being real. If there's no indictment and there's an evacuation situation, then we need to be prepared for that," he said. "If there is an indictment and there's celebratory unrest, we need to be prepared for that. The city and the law enforcement agencies are looking at all scenarios."

If violence breaks out, James said officials are considering how they would alert residents and instruct them to "hunker down or get out."All options are being explored, even an evacuation plan, James said. The city is weighing whether to use robotic calls, emails, text messages or simply relying on the media to get the word out.

Criminal Record Controversy
Last week, the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership fired James after it learned he had been convicted of and served time in prison for reckless homicide. James said the partnership hired him as a subcontractor to work on an image campaign for North County, and he was later paid to work with Ferguson after tensions there grew following the shooting death of Michael Brown.

James said he was involved in "street life" when he was younger, and he was shot when he tried to leave a gang. In 2004, James fatally shot an unarmed man during what he called a "home invasion." He spent three months in prison "with some pretty rough folks."

"I had been on judicial supervision, which is a form of probation, prior to getting out of jail and starting my actual probation, so I actually been on probation for 10 years," he said. "For me to do 10 years of probation and not have one violation, not one speeding ticket, if you will, that's pretty commendable."

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles told media that James spoke to officials about his conviction, but the partnership said James never disclosed his record and was let go "due to a lack of transparency."

"While we admire his personal growth from difficult circumstances and commend him for his high quality work in Ferguson, it was the lack of information about his background that prompted us to make this move," the partnership said in a statement.

James said he now works for the city on a pro-bono basis, although he is working with officials on a possible contract. He said because of his experience with the legal system, he is familiar with many of the issues and policies the city is considering changing in the aftermath of the protests.

"I think that it's important to have someone who's faced similar challenges at the table at the strategic level," he said.

James said that's why the partnership chose him to work with the city.

"The initial conversations all were trying to leverage not only my youth, my street cred, my race, you know, in a way to connect with the African-American community," he said. "But I don't think they understood me, as a person."

James has also faced criticism that he lied or was misleading about his educational background. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that James claimed in a job application that he had a college degree; he later said he did not. He told St. Louis Public Radio that he had never graduated from high school and instead earned his GED diploma, and hopes he won't be defined by his level of education.

"If everyone in the St. Louis region has a problem with me and I'm the guy who's overcome some of those challenges, kind of got his life together, got a company going, trying to make a positive impact, and you still have a problem with me, what do you think about the folks who don't have their life together?"

The Economic Development Partnership has come under fire itself for spending $100,000 on public relations companies — including the Devin James Group — to respond to the Ferguson unrest.

Partnership CEO Denny Coleman said his agency needed a public relations strategy to counter the overwhelmingly negative media coverage that followed Michael Brown's death, particularly to protect expansion opportunities in north St. Louis County.

"We weren't doing this just for Ferguson. We weren't doing this just for St. Louis County, but for the entire St. Louis region because it does impact jobs and investment and talent attraction and anything to do with our economic future," he said.

Coleman recently was asked if James was fired because of his handling of communications for Ferguson, which some have criticized, but Coleman said he's received "fairly positive" feedback on James' work.

"I think what we have to keep in mind is put any of us in that position when you are inundated with media inquires from the local, regional, national and international press. And you’re trying to line up interviews with the city officials, the chief of police — who themselves are feeling overwhelmed by circumstances," Coleman said. "This is not an easy job. And he was not hired specifically for that role. But he was willing to jump in and try to do the best job he could. And again, what we heard back from the service he was providing to the city — directly I’ve heard from the city manager that they thought he was doing a very fine job for them."

James said the city is now using project management software to filter media requests to better match sources with interviews.

"If they get 10 or 15 Sunshine requests in one hour, who is going to address people? There is not staff, they're not adequately staffed to even handle a lot of the communications that go on on a normal day," James said.

Commitment To Ferguson

James said he is committed to seeing Ferguson through what's become "an international conversation" about court and policing policies so that it can "become the model."

"If we don't get this right in the city of Ferguson, how can we expect folk to get this right across the country?" he said. "I want to be a part of that."

James attributes a lot of the city's tension to a separation among residents who coexist but haven't really sat down and talked. That's where community conversations, like the town hall meetings hosted by the Department of Justice are helpful, he said.

He said on the one hand, he recognizes some Ferguson residents are upset over the cancelation of some community events, like the Ferguson Farmer's Market and StreetFest. On the other hand, he said he understands firsthand many of the issues protesters are drawing attention to.

"I don't have a problem with people protesting at all. I just don't agree with the violence; I don't agree with the name-calling," he said of words directed toward law enforcement. "If we don't want people to generalize in one direction, we shouldn't generalize in the other direction."

James said residents must learn to talk and listen to each other — and come to compromises.

"We don't want Ferguson to go back to what it was before," he said. "We don't want there to be two Fergusons — a black Ferguson and a white Ferguson. We don't want to 'fix' Ferguson because 'fix' implies you're going to restore it back. I think what we want is a new Ferguson and we want everyone's discomfort acknowledged so we can change."

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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