A few days ago Governor Nixon announced the formation of a commission to “address the ‘social and economic conditions’ highlighted by protests after the killing of Michael Brown.” While the names of the members of the commission have been made public, their formal charge hasn’t been released so far as I have been able to determine. The only statement about what the Commission is supposed to achieve are the three goals that the Governor described when he stated his intention to form the Commission last month: “to study the underlying causes of the unrest, to tap into expertise needed to address those concerns, and to make specific recommendations for ‘making the St. Louis region a stronger, fairer place for everyone to live.'”
You have to admit that as detailed above, the Commission has been given a very big task. I’m sure that the members of the Commission are all able and dedicated people and perhaps the Governor will give them a realistic, focused charge with a set of clearly delineated deliverables. And if he doesn’t, perhaps they’ll do it for themselves.
Certainly, there are lots of big issues that have to do with race, class and demographic change that need to be addressed in the St. Louis area. However, I’m not sure that sixteen folks working over six months to a year, as the Governor has described the timeframe, will provide the key to solving them. It did occur to me, though, that six months to a year is time enough to let emotions raised by the Ferguson killing cool somewhat while folks are told that their problems are being addressed somewhere off-stage. The Commission allows the Governor to claim that he is serious about change while at the same time leaving him more immediately free to pander to those who want a punitive, authoritarian response to Ferguson unrest – which the Governor signaled he intended to provide when he prematurely called out the National Guard. Nixon, like County Executive Steve Stenger who felt the need to stand in tandem with a county prosecutor tainted by a pereption of bias, knows who butters his bread – or thinks he does – and wants to make it clear to Missourians who seem to harbor unrealistic fears about the extent of the Ferguson protests that strict disciplinarian Daddy Jay won’t take no back-talk from uppity protestors.
It will be a shame if this Commission ends up as yet another missed opportunity because there is a very real, very specific problem that needs to be effectively addressed by just such a group: police and minority relations. It is this topic that seems to me to lie at the heart of the uproar in Ferguson. And it’s not a little topic; it comprehends overt bias, police brutality, and the disrespectful exercise of power over folks who have little or no recourse against what they perceive as unfair, oppressive police. There are cultural misapprehensions on the part of both police and minority citizens that have to be expunged if our police forces are to be effectve in keeping the peace and combatting crime and we need to addres this divide if we want to see change – and unlike other the more global problems of racial relations, this issue is amenable to fairly rapid change if we give it the focused attention it needs.
Of course, the Justice Department is currently conducting a review of Ferguson police practices. However, the federal effort does not obviate the need for a local examination of policing problems that should be widened to cover the entire county and take into consideration issues relating to potential consolidation of County resources. It should be possible to work cooperatively or build on the federal efforts.
In the context of the DoJ review, it is worthwhile to note that its leader, Christy E. Lopez, has researched issues surrounding the the breakdown of police authority in minority neighborhoods, concentrating on “the ‘widespread’ problem of cops illegally arresting citizens simply because they perceived them as disrespecting their authority, which has been a common occurrence in protests in the St. Louis area over the past two months.” It’s espeially pertinent since video recently surfaced of the police officer at the heat of the Ferguson protests, Darren Wilson, throwing his official weight around in just such dishonest and disrespectful fashion. This fact alone suggests that the findings of the federal probe could profitably be mined to create an action oriented charge for our local Commission that might go a long way to changing the dynamics of police community relations in Ferguson and elsewhere in the St. Louis Metro area.
I am not suggesting that the bigger issues that devil race relations in the St. Louis area do not need to be addressed, just that we need to be smart about how we go about doing so. Making sure that goals are stated in concrete terms and can broken down into bites that are small enough to be easily digested is usually a good way to get something useful from a group. Overlarge, vague charges usually beget overlarge and vague recommendations that go nowhere and it would be a shame to see that happen this time.