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Embattled Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson resigns

Embattled Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson announced his resignation on Wednesday afternoon — a week after a blistering Justice Department report.
Ferguson Chief of Police Tom Jackson speaks to a television news crew across from the police station on Nov. 20, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)
Ferguson Chief of Police Tom Jackson speaks to a television news crew across from the police station on Nov. 20, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.

Embattled Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson announced his resignation on Wednesday afternoon — a week after a blistering Justice Department report revealed his department regularly engaged in racially biased policing.

The police leader’s resignation is the latest shake up in a story that first gained national attention more than six months ago, when former Ferguson officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed black teen Michael Brown Jr. The federal report also uncovered a shocking police and court system that unfairly targeted black residents with use of force and arrests to bolster the city’s budget.

"I'm confident the city will pull through these trying times,” Jackson told NBC News shortly after the city announced his resignation. “The people are committed to Ferguson."

RELATED: Ferguson mayor addresses departure of police chief Tom Jackson

Jackson’s resignation will take effect on March 19.

“It is with profound sadness that I am announcing I am stepping down from my position as chief of police for the city of Ferguson Missouri,” Jackson wrote in a resignation letter first published by the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “It has been an honor and a privilege to serve this great city and to serve with all of you. I will continue to assist the city in anyway I

Hours after the announcement, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles II said that, for months, city leaders including Jackson had discussed the “best way forward” and how they could “lessen the frustrations during the unrest, how we could try to bring this community together to move this city forward.” He added that Jackson voluntarily resigned.

State. Rep. Courtney Curtis, whose district includes Ferguson, noted that “It’s a nice next step after the resignation of the city manager, but it’s still not enough. Anything short of the mayor’s resignation to change the tone and deal with the city is not enough.”

Curtis added that “Leadership truly sets the tone and to say that people did all of this without the mayor knowing does not make sense. And as of right now, the mayor still controls the council and that gives him control over the city manager.”

Jackson's decision to step down comes one day after John Shaw, the city’s most powerful official who oversaw the city’s finances, submitted his resignation to the Ferguson City Council. Shaw was blasted in the DOJ’s report as a cog in a machine that used the targeted arrest and fining of African-American residents to boost the city’s revenue.

The report, released in conjunction with a scathing speech by Holder, who described the scheme as toxic and dangerous, also lead to the resignation of two police officers who were initially placed on administrative leave. The city's clerk of courts was also fired. In addition, a municipal judge named by the federal report as contributing to the state-wide system of exploiting black residents for revenue-generating purposes also resigned. 

RELATED: Ferguson judge resigns, state supreme court to take all municipal cases

The DOJ, which launched the investigation in the wake of Brown's death, found that city leaders created a toxic environment poised to explode in a city that has a large black population but an almost entirely white police force. Among the report's many revelations were racist emails sent by police and court officials via official email addresses.

One of the two police officers who were officially rebuked for sending racist emails — Capt. Rick Henke and Sgt. William Mudd — resigned a day after the release of the report. Sgt. Mudd had been Wilson’s supervisor. Mary Ann Twitty, clerk of the Municipal Court, was fired just hours after Holder announced the Justice Department’s findings.

The heads could continue to roll. Calls continue for the resignation of Mayor James Knowles III, who in the days after the shooting of Brown and subsequent protests said that the city did not have a race problem. He later walked back the comments. 

“It’s not enough to have the chief step down. The culture is still there, the culture has been there. Just because that person leaves doesn’t mean the culture leaves,” Curtis said. "While I don’t want to say disband the police department, we have to take extreme measures to disband the culture. As resistant as they’ve been since August, I think it’s going to take more than one resignation to disband that culture.”

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who has openly criticized Jackson, the mayor and Gov. Jay Nixon, said in a statement that “A fish rots from the head down.” 

“The DOJ report revealed that the instructions came from the top. Make up the rules. Make sure your friends are exempt. Arrest and fine all the black people. Now two of the three heads of this embarrassment have left,” Nadal said. “Your move, Mayor.” 

RELATED: The Ferguson fallout begins: One cop fired, two suspended for racist emails

Jackson has been a lightening rod from the outset of the crisis in Ferguson. Though he handed over the investigation into Brown's killing almost immediately, he was the face of a department that residents and protesters said has been nothing short of brutal in interactions with blacks generally and with protesters specifically.

Time and again, Jackson's missteps fed the notion that the department was at least incompetent in handling the fallout. He appeared to lack control or confidence during early press-conferences. Jackson was also blasted for simultaneously releasing Darren Wilson's identity for the first time along with video of an alleged robbery involving Brown at a convenience store shortly before his death. Critics said the two incidents were unrelated. Both the Justice Department and the NAACP urged the police department not to release the video. 

The police chief also initially said Wilson wasn't aware that Brown was a suspect at the time he confronted the teen and a friend. Later, the same day, Jackson changed his story and said that Wilson was indeed aware of the incident at the store.

Civil rights and civil liberties groups criticized the department for not following its own policy in terms of filing proper documentation of use-of-force incidents. The Ferguson Police Department has yet to release a full report on Browns shooting. He offered a months-late apology to Brown's family and peaceful protesters caught in the cross-fire of rubber bullets and tear gas from police. And under his watch, police officers, including a supervisor, sent along racist jokes that included references to President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as one that referenced the abortion of a black child as a form of crime control.

Ahead of the announcement of Jackson’s resignation, Jeff Small, a Ferguson spokesman said the city is taking the fallout from the DOJ’s report seriously.

“I think all along the mayor, certainly many times, has said on television and in print articles that based on the DOJ’s report … 'they are taking this very seriously,'” Small said. “We are looking to do our own internal investigations. Obviously they pointed out some problems that are very serious and we are concerned. We are going to make changes as they are needed.”

RELATED: Ferguson City Manager John Shaw resigns after scathing DOJ report 

Many black residents, local politicians and protesters say the entire local police and court systems need to be overhauled, following Holder’s call for “wholesale” change.

“I think it is extremely positive to see that all of the changes that have happened in Ferguson are starting to happen. They’re happening piece by piece, but it’s starting to happen,” Adolphus Pruitt, head of the St. Louis NAACP branch said. “The question is when this is over with, will the pieces add up to the wholesale change that’s needed or will it be only a piecemeal response to the report.”

The 103-page DOJ report, the culmination of a months-long investigation found the city police department cultivated a culture of racial hostility that included unreasonable searches and seizures, racial slurs, unjust stops and the excessive use of force against black residents. The Ferguson municipal court system was denounced for fining policies that used exorbitant fines and fees levied against black residents to fill the city’s coffers and bolster the municipal budget.

Jackson has faced criticism and repeated calls for his removal after his handling of the shooting’s aftermath, when Ferguson was wracked by protests and unrest. Rumors of his resignation and the dismantling of the police department have hovered over the city for months.

The chief previously denied any knowledge of a behind-the-scenes effort to negotiate his ouster, amid reports last October of a possible backdoor deal being brokered between local, state and federal officials that would include his resignation as part of a plan to overhaul the department.

In late November, a St. Louis grand jury declined to indict Wilson. And just last week, the Department of Justice, in an investigation separate from that focused on the police department as a whole, found no evidence to disprove Wilson’s claims that he killed the teen in self-defense.

However, the DOJ’s investigation of the entire Ferguson police department has validated claims by many black residents who say they’ve essentially been terrorized by local cops, that they were routinely arrested and detained without cause, and that the courts were complicate in oppressing poor black residents. Community organizers say the federal report validated what black residents have long said, but without major reforms, the status quo might remain.

RELATED: Obama responds to DOJ report: Ferguson ‘not an isolated incident’

“These things have been going on, they knew the Department of Justice was going to uncover these things when they did their investigation,” said Patricia Bynes, a Democratic Committeewoman in Ferguson who has been critical of city leaders. “Yet, no one prior to the release of the report stepped down, resigned. If anything prior to this the message coming from the city was, we haven’t done anything wrong and we’re not going to budge.”

Bynes has called the latest shake-up “a first step.” 

“It could be something positive because who is to say the person who comes behind them is the same way or worse,” Bynes said. "It’s a positive first step but it’s what the follow up will be. And it’s up to the community at this point to keep the pressure on.”

A test of just how well voter education and registration efforts have gone in Ferguson, which is about 70% black but whose leadership is almost completely white, could come in April when municipal elections will be held. These local elections typically experience extremely low turnout, less than even abysmal statewide turnout among black voters there.

Up for grabs are three City Council seats, including seats from wards that experienced violent clashes and teargassing by police during demonstrations last summer.

“This is when people can make their voices heard,” Bynes said. “These are the elections that get the lowest turnout, but, in my eye, are some of the most important. Who are we putting in their place? And is this going to signal a culture change within the Ferguson city government or are they going to get new bodies to do the exact same thing as the old.”

Jackson took over the Ferguson Police Department five years ago after retiring from the St. Louis Police Department. In an interview with msnbc late last year, Jackson said that he was putting forth his best foot in addressing the many concerns residents had about the policing of the city and that he'd undertaken efforts to hire more black officers — only 3 of the force's 53 officers are black.  He also welcomed a donation of body cameras to hold his officers more accountable.

Jackson's rise was an unlikely one. He said that he entertained the idea of becoming a professional singer, then as a young man in the late 1970s he attempted to join the police force but he didn't meet the height requirement. It wasn't until the height requirement was lowered to get more women on the force was he allowed to join. Jackson later became a police helicopter pilot before going on to have a successful career with the St. Louis County police department, eventually heading its narcotics unit.

RELATED: In Ferguson, a failure of leadership

In a letter sent to the Department of Justice from the St. Louis branch of the NAACP in early September, the group requested a thorough investigation into Jackson's tenure as the head of the county's narcotics unit. Pruitt said his office had received numerous complaints about the ongoing treatment and profiling of African-Americans by the narcotics and gang units that stretched back to Jackson's tenure.

"I am requesting this review due to the St. Louis County Police Department's recent history of profiling African-Americans; and more importantly Officer Thomas Jackson's most recent behavior as Chief of the Ferguson police department," the letter stated. "A thorough review of the retired Captain Thomas Jackson's actions as commander of the County's Drug Unit is well-warranted to protect the integrity of the multitude of cases adjudicated as a direct result of the Drug Unit's investigations."

Last week, with the release of the Justice Department's report on the shady underpinnings of the Ferguson police, residents of Ferguson and surrounding neighborhoods say the issue of racially biased policing goes far beyond Ferguson and includes many of the surrounding municipalities who operate under similar cultures and patterns.

“As last week’s Justice Department report demonstrated, deep-seated racism has created a culture in which entire communities are considered ‘criminal’ based on skin color,” Michael T. McPhearson, co-chair of the Don’t Shoot Coalition said. “We simply can’t allow this to continue. It sows distrust between law enforcement and the community making all of us, including the police, less safe.”