In the aftermath of Michael Brown's death at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson– and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests it helped to spark and sustain – the state of Missouri appeared poised for change. Organizers and activists urged state lawmakers to pass reforms that would confront the systemic issues behind police violence. Gov. Jay Nixon also called on the legislature to act, saying during this year’s State of the State address: “The legacy of Ferguson will be determined by what we do next.”
We know that power concedes nothing without a demand. We maintained a presence in the streets, even in the face of a militarized police force bearing tear gas and rubber bullets. We also worked with members of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus to bring impacted people to legislative hearings, where one after another testified about Black communities being routinely harassed, over-criminalized and brutalized at the hands of police. We met with lawmakers to share our vision for a new model of policing.
The Missouri Legislature had a chance to listen to the voices of a grieving and pained community, and to enact meaningful change. Instead legislative leadership chose to deny 300,000 Missourians affordable healthcare, cut unemployment benefits in half to 13 weeks, and limit people’s ability express their democratic voice in local communities. And on the issue of policing – they did almost nothing.
The state recently marked the close of this year’s legislative session. And despite the filing of more than 100 bills related to policing, only one measure – a bill that capped the percentage of a community’s operating budget that can come from traffic fines – passed. While that single bill is one step toward reducing the incentive for police to pull people over, lawmakers failed to address the underlying problems between Missouri police and the communities of color. The leadership in the legislature ignored the cries for justice from the people of Ferguson, and our vision for a police force and criminal justice system that, instead of criminalizing and undermining entire communities, creates trust by genuinely serving and protecting all of us.
One of the problems we continue to see here is that police forces don’t reflect the values of the people they’re supposed to serve. The community oriented policing bill that we called for could remedy this disconnect, shifting the fundamental power dynamic between the community and the police. Quality policing, as embodied in Missouri HB 881, would have also built public confidence in the fairness and legitimacy of police practices. This approach would have created formal systems of community participation for the review of police practices to ensure they represent community, not just municipal, interests.
In Missouri, people with felony convictions on their records are forbidden from serving on juries, which is an additional barrier to assuring community representation in the judicial process. We called on Missouri to restore the right to serve on juries to these individuals after they have completed their sentences. In addition to ensuring that juries more broadly reflect the community, men and women who have served their time, living in and contributing to our neighborhoods and paying taxes, should simply no longer be deprived of this basic civil right.
Communities must also have a say in the accountability of police officers when there are complaints of misconduct. Currently the internal affairs divisions of police departments serve as the sole oversight authority when police brutality, racial profiling and improper use of force are in question. But police departments are accountable to the public – they should not be investigating themselves. This lack of accountability can be remedied through the launching of independent, county-wide citizen review boards charged with reviewing serious complaints of police misconduct, making policy recommendations and reporting on the activities of departments.
We knew it would be hard to push these types of changes through the legislature. But in the face of months of our community’s cries for justice, despite eyes across the nation (and the world) being on Missouri, it’s a tremendous disappointment that no one found the courage to act. Proposals that advance community participation, representation and accountability are urgently need to improve community-police relations. And though we are disappointed, we are not defeated – ready to double down on our efforts until these critical priorities are won.
Montague Simmons is the chair of the Organization for Black Struggle.