Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III described Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson as an “honorable man” who decided on his own to step down from his position as the head of an embattled police department.
Knowles statement during a press conference on Wednesday night came just hours after the city announced Jackson’s resignation — the climax of months of protests and calls for the chief’s ouster following the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. by a Ferguson police officer in August.
Knowles said 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.”
His resignation came on the heels of a Justice Department investigation that revealed Ferguson officers engaged in a wide-ranging pattern of police abuses that violated federal law and the constitutional rights of African-American residents. As pressure and scrutiny of Jackson's leadership mounted, he opted to step down rather than weather the ongoing maelstrom sparked by report.
“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 late Wednesday afternoon. “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 any way I can in my capacity as private citizen.”
The Justice Department's report uncovered troubling disparities in the use of force against blacks, targeted and excessive arrests, the use of racial slurs by officials on official email, and a scheme supported by the municipal courts that used the fining of black residents to bolster the city’s revenue.
Jackson’s announcement is the fifth resignation of a city official in the week since the release of the federal report. Two police officers, the municipal court judge, and the Ferguson city manager also stepped down. Another official, a court clerk, was fired.
On Wednesday night, Knowles spoke briefly and said it was difficult to watch Jackson leave, but added that the chief had arrived at the decision on his own. He said Jackson will receive a severance of about $100,000 and a year’s worth of medical insurance as part of his severance agreement.
Jackson’s resignation is effective March 19.
Knowles said that the city is now conducting a nationwide search for Jackson’s replacement as well as a replacement for John Shaw, the city’s former city manager who resigned on Tuesday. Shaw was the city’s most powerful official and oversaw the city’s finances.
The police chief had been widely criticized for his handling of the fallout from Brown’s killing, even before the Justice Department released its blistering report detailing the police force’s rampant disregard for public safety and the city's for-profit targeting of black residents.
“By the time Officer Wilson’s near blank incident report was reluctantly released, Jackson should have been long gone," Rev. Osagyefo Sekou said following Jackson’s resignation. "Instead, hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars were pumped into highly questionable PR blitzes, and a deeply disingenuous video apology issued.”
He added that Jackson's resignation "comes many months too late to be any salve to the family and friends of Michael Brown, the community of Ferguson and the hundreds of people still facing trumped up and often unconstitutional charges following the extrajudicial killing of an unarmed young man."
Knowles on Wednesday added that Jackson’s decision to make his resignation effective on March 19, rather than leave immediately, was in part to offer “an orderly transition.”
Calls for the mayor to step down have risen as other city heads have toppled. During the press conference, Knowles — who had been lambasted for initially stating that Ferguson didn’t have any problems with race before walking back the comment — said he had no plans on leaving office.
"Somebody is going to have to be here to run the ship, and I have been committed, the city council has been committed to making those reforms," knowles said. "I realize that there are some people that still want a head, or my head, or other heads, and I can understand if they want to say that. Again, we are focused on how we can move this community forward."
Ferguson is in the process of addressing the criticisms laid out in the Justice Department report, Knowles said, and the city has hired consulting firms to aid in that process.
The next step for the Ferguson police department could be a federal consent decree, which would include a federal monitor inside the department and a wide range of reforms. For months there’ve been rumors and calls for the department to be dismantled and handed over to the county police.
When a reporter asked Knowles if he thought the city would be able to make the necessary reforms and hold onto its department, Knowles said he believed so.
"Rough estimates and things going forward, I would say that we believe that it is something that we can do," he responded. "We are committed to making that happen. And we will always make the decision that is best for the city, both financially and what is best for the future of the city. And so right now what we are seeing going forward, Absolutely, we will keep the police department."
Vanita Gupta, the acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights division, said that the results of the DOJ’s investigation into the practices of the Ferguson police department “remain a top concern and priority.”
“The division will continue to work with Ferguson Police and city leadership, regardless of whomever is in those positions, to reach a court enforceable agreement that will address their unconstitutional practices in a comprehensive manner,” Gupta said in a statement.
Gupta said staff from the Civil Rights Division will be traveling to Ferguson to discuss next steps with community members and city leadership.