Black Caucus Pushes Hard for Ferguson-Inspired Reform in Missouri Legislature

Missouri House Speaker John Diehl (R) promised in January that the state’s legislature, the General Assembly, would not “have a Ferguson agenda” in response to the rioting that followed the shooting death of Michael Brown.

“We’re not going to have a Ferguson agenda here in the House. The Senate has indicated the same thing. I view the situation of Ferguson as really a reflection of decades of bad government policy,” Diehl told reporters.

But then the Department of Justice released a report detailing racist emails that had been sent by police and court officials in Ferguson.

It was followed by a flurry of legislation that rained down on the Missouri statehouse. Proposals have been introduced that would mandate body cameras on police officers, cut the revenue local governments pull in from traffic tickets, and tighten reporting policies to detect racial profiling.

Legislation has also been introduced that would do away with Missouri’s grand jury system.

However, members of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus are accusing Republicans of blocking their proposals.

“Missouri is sending out a message that we have law enforcement officers that we know abuse so-called minorities and we’re comfortable with it,” said the chairman of the Black Caucus, Rep. Brandon Ellington (D).

Diehl told the Kansas City Star each piece of legislation would be weighed on its own merits.

“We will not make the men and women in our law enforcement community, or our first responders, the scapegoats for the tragic events that occurred in Ferguson last year,” said Diehl.

Police department performance and racial profiling are the targets of legislation offered by one of the leading members of the Black Caucus of the Missouri Legislature, Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal (D).

She said the need for her proposal, SB 559, was apparent even without the DOJ report.

“We have years of stats that echo the DOJ’s findings and prove we have a bias-based policing problem in Missouri,” said Chappelle-Nadal. “The Fair and Impartial Policing Act of 2015 provides solutions so we can begin to build trust between the police and the communities they serve.”

Michael T. McPhearson, co-chair of the “Don’t Shoot Coalition” and executive director for Veterans for Peace, said the legislation addresses a statewide problem.

“The Department of Justice did a good job of investigating the Ferguson Police Department, but we all know that Ferguson is not alone and we are lobbying strongly for SB 559 because we need a fix that will affect our entire state,” he said.

The Fair and Impartial Policing Act creates definitions for “benchmark,” "biased policing,” “contraband,” “disparity index,” “hit rate,” “law enforcement activity,” and "pedestrian stops" for purposes of a statute requiring the reporting of certain information regarding stops by law enforcement officers.

Under current law, law enforcement officers must report certain information regarding motor vehicle stops, which is then analyzed by the attorney general and released in an annual report.

This act also requires law enforcement officers to report certain information regarding pedestrian stops and modifies the information that must be reported by law enforcement officers.

It also mandates state funding will be withheld if law enforcement agencies do not report, or submit incomplete reports.

Late reporting has been a problem.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said the day before SB 559 was introduced that 17 police agencies, including the Ferguson Police Department, were 10 days late in filing their “annual disparity data” with his office.

“The annual vehicle stops report is a valuable tool for citizens and policy makers,” Koster said. “The failure to submit the required data raises questions about the attentiveness of a department as to this important issue.”

SB 559 has been read twice on the Senate floor and was waiting to be referred to committee.

The Department of Justice report, which did exonerate Officer Darren Wilson of any wrongdoing in the shooting death of Michael Brown, also accused Ferguson officials of using their municipal court and police force to raise revenue by targeting black residents for arrest and fines.

Gov. Jay Nixon (D) told the Missouri Bar Association that changes to the state’s municipal court system must be made as soon as possible.

“A citizen was arrested, jailed, and fined over $1,000 for two parking tickets she received in 2007. A 67-year-old woman arrested after failing to pay a trash removal citation. And in the same court, others get off scot-free,” Nixon said.

He said the main problem with Missouri’s municipal court system is “the profit motive.”

Nixon wants the General Assembly to approve a new version of the state’s so-called Mack’s Creek law, which was named after a notorious speed trap in Missouri.

The new version of Mack’s Creek would lower the amount of revenue local governments could glean from traffic ticket revenue.

Nixon also said the number of people facing criminal and civil charges is totally out of whack with reality.

“In yesterday’s Post-Dispatch it was reported that as of October, Ferguson municipal court had 103,000 pending cases, in a city of just over 21,000 people,” Nixon said.

“We all know these predatory practices are not confined to Ferguson,” he added.

Reuben Shelton, the president of the Missouri Bar Association, added his voice to those calling for statewide reform in a blog post on the association’s website.

“The importance of Ferguson, Missouri is simple. What happened there in August 2014 is transformative and has the potential to change, in part, our nation’s judicial system forever,” Shelton wrote.

“What happened in Ferguson has ignited a debate that is born from tragedy and sorrow but could lead to phenomenally positive cooperation and unity – now and for future generations.”