Last summer’s fiery protests in Ferguson, Missouri, seemed to spark change: About 60 or so bills were introduced in the legislature in response to the unrest that followed the killing of Michael Brown Jr. by a white police officer. Yet the Missouri legislature ended its session last week without passing virtually any of the proposed policing or criminal justice reforms.
Legislators did not pass a bill on police body cameras. They did not move forward on a bill that would have brought the state’s use of deadly force law in line with the U.S. Constitution. The lawmakers did not set standards for eyewitness identification, eliminate racial profiling by police, or mandate diversity and sensitivity training — all of which had been proposed amid the momentum initiated by protesters, activists and a handful of sympathetic legislators at the beginning of the 2015 session.
Even Gov. Jay Nixon used his State of the State address earlier this year to call for wide reform, saying that “the legacy of Ferguson will be determined by what we do next.” Nixon said the legislature needed to “reform municipal courts so that all citizens are treated fairly,” update statutes governing deadly force to be consistent with U.S. Constitution and support policies that “foster racial understanding and compassion.”
But in the end, the momentum seemed to fizzle, crumbling under partisan gridlock and political gamesmanship. Just one out of the dozens of bills introduced this past session relating to post-Ferguson reforms was passed by the legislature and sent to Nixon to be signed. It was a bill that limits how municipal courts can use fines and fees to generate revenue. That legislation was passed after the Department of Justice released a scathing report detailing widespread abuses by Ferguson police and its municipal court, including the targeting of black residents for illegal arrests and evidence that courts were colluding with police to operate what was essentially a debtors prison.
“Overall I think Ferguson lost,” said Missouri State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, whose district includes Ferguson and who introduced four bills dealing with issues exposed by the crisis. “I’m pissed off right now. I’m unhappy because I feel that I did everything that I possibly could have done and it meant absolutely nothing.”
Chappelle-Nadal and others say a combination of political gamesmanship inside the legislature — as well as an inability to translate the passion and organization in the streets of Ferguson into sustained political pressure on those in the capital — hampered efforts to force reform on the state level.
“The Republicans, they didn’t have the appetite for any Ferguson related bills,” said State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed. “This session was very disheartening. But if you go back in history, you need the inside forces and the outside forces when it comes to changing policies,” she added “I think we have the inside force … but the pressure from the outside didn’t mount in the way it should have. Not to blame anyone, but the same outcry and the same drive and energy that you saw in Ferguson every single day should have been the same type of momentum we should have had at the state capital.”
Nasheed said sustained protest and pressure at the statehouse could have forced legislators to say “enough is enough, we can’t handle this anymore and they would’ve buckled under the pressure.”
While the Missouri legislature stalled on meaningful state-level action on the myriad issues exposed in the wake of Brown’s killing, the White House has used the lessons learned from Ferguson to enact change on the federal level.
On Monday, President Barack Obama announced new efforts to demilitarize America’s police departments, telling an audience in Camden, New Jersey, that heavily armed police forces have left many local residents feeling alienated and intimidated.
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force,” Obama said. “We’re going to prohibit some equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for those police departments.”Obama’s ban on the transfer of some types of military weapons to local police departments ties directly back to the initial uprising in Ferguson, when mostly peaceful protesters were confronted by heavily armed police, some in bomb-resistant vehicles, others dressed in fatigues carrying assault rifles.
The new restriction is part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to ease tensions between police and communities of color across the country, including in Ferguson and in Baltimore — both of which were theaters of unrest following the deaths of unarmed black men either killed by police or while in police custody.
The new restrictions were among the recommendations offered by a task force on policing created by Obama in the wake of the crisis in Ferguson. On Monday, the task force released a 116-page report that urged the country’s police agencies to “embrace a guardian — rather than a warrior— mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public.”
Also on Tuesday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch kicked off a national community policing tour in Cincinnati to highlight innovative policing practices aimed at strengthening trust and respect between police and the communities they serve.
“The issue of trust between and among law enforcement officers and the communities we serve is the issue of our times. It has come to the forefront of our national discussion and captured a great deal of media attention due to recent tragic events in New York, Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities,” Lynch said in a speech on Tuesday. “Protest movements have emerged and people are speaking out. But let’s be clear — this is not a new issue.”
Montague Simmons, executive director of the St. Louis-based Organization for Black Struggle, said the Obama administration had to take some kind of action given the clamor of voices that had risen in Ferguson over the past several months. But on the state level, he said, there seems to be a lack of will.
“The challenge is always in finding people that have the political courage to make effective change real,” Simmons said. “I can’t rightly say I’m surprised. We knew how hard it would be to push anything through this legislature. The fact that no one found the courage to do anything around policing, it’s more than disheartening.”
For months after Brown’s shooting, and then months later as protests continued in Ferguson and spread across the country, members of the legislature, including Republicans and Democrats, went on official and unofficial listening tours to hear about people’s experiences before and after Brown’s death.
“We had the attention of all our colleagues,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “We had their attention, even the rural legislators. But people didn’t come up to the statehouse and push. It was like no one cared.”
One piece of Ferguson-related legislation that lawmakers came close to passing would have limited police officers’ use of deadly force, putting it more in line with previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
The way the current state law is written, an officer is allowed to use of deadly force if he or she believes a suspect has committed or attempted a felony, or if the suspect poses a threat or is fleeing with a deadly weapon. The proposed legislation would have limited the use of force by officers to situations where a suspect has committed a felony and has inflicted or is threatening serious physical injury.
A vote on the measure was stymied as a controversial “right to work” bill sparked a tit-for-tat among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — leading to wasted time and an early end to the session before the measure could be voted on.
“While there was some genuine effort, it was disappointing to have my colleagues in the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, sacrifice bills that are important to the communities that I represent,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “Democrats chose to give up every single bill that was worthwhile, even their own bills, including the deadly use of force bill because legislators wanted to [tick off] Republicans. It was complete selfishness.”