Changes by Jennings police department may show path forward for Ferguson’s force

In early 2011, the tiny Jennings police department in north St. Louis County was reeling from a series of lawsuits and complaints that its officers had used excessive force on its black residents, including shooting at a fleeing car with a baby inside and striking and kicking a woman for making a joke.

Today, the city of 14,000 about a mile from its sister community Ferguson has a newly constituted police force run by St. Louis County Police. The number of serious crimes has dropped dramatically. And by the accounts of some locals, the department has made significant strides in improving its relationship with residents.

It has a lot in common with Ferguson, now the center of a national firestorm over a white officer fatally shooting an unarmed black youth. It’s a police force in a struggling middle-class community in the highly segregated north county. Its force is made up overwhelmingly of white officers. More than two-thirds of the residents are black. And the Ferguson officer who shot Michael Brown, Darren Wilson, had worked in the Jennings police department.

Community policing — getting to know residents and building trusting relationships with them — was the key to rebuilding the police force in Jennings, according to the person in charge of righting the ship. Lt. Jeff Fuesting, who took over as commander of the force when the city disbanded the original department in March 2011, said he and his fellow officers can’t do their job of solving and preventing crimes without the community’s faith and trust.

“Community policing is really big here,” Fuesting said. “We have more residents reporting crimes, giving their names. That really helps us solve crimes.”

Cities with disproportionately white police forces

Crime is down, too, with serious crimes, such as homicides, stabbings and rapes, down by a third since March 2011, state statistics show. Fuesting also increased the number of African American officers from two to six on the 33-member force.

When Fuesting and county police Capt. Troy Doyle arrived in Jennings as the temporary leaders of the department in late 2010, the 30-year chief had just resigned amid a federal-state investigation into missing police grant money. Within a few weeks of running the department, Fuesting and Doyle faced a community uproar when a Jennings officer shot repeatedly at an African American woman fleeing an accident scene in her car with her baby inside.

That day, Doyle removed the officer from the street, shared video of the incident with community members and publicly announced that the officer had violated the department’s excessive force policy. The officer resigned within the week.

Since taking over permanently that year, “We’ve had no lawsuits, no complaints of excessive force. Zero,” Fuesting said.

Fuesting, a native of an equally tiny town, Effingham, Ill., whose father was an officer, came to work for the St. Louis city police, before joining the county.

Just last month, Fuesting gave a community policing award to a local pawn shop for its important help.

“Honored to give citizen recognition award to North County Pawn Shop owner for their assistance identifying suspect who robbed elderly male!” the lieutenant posted on his Twitter account.

The Washington Post explores the feelings and emotions of African American men along West Florissant Ave. in Ferguson, Mo., as thousands protest the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. (Chris L. Jenkins and Garrett Hubbard/The Washington Post)

One thing hasn’t changed in Jennings. The vast majority of the residents, 89 percent, are black. The majority of the police officers are white.

Amid the protests over Brown’s shooting, Fuesting has been recognized for his open and friendly approach at the Ferguson demonstrations, where nearly all county police have served long hours on rotating shifts.

One reporter covering the protests for the Associated Press noted that Fuesting wore his name tag on the protest line, when many others had removed them.

“Lt. Fuesting is the only officer with his name tag on,” the reporter tweeted, attaching Fuesting’s picture. “ ‘I don’t take this off for anything.’ ”

Fuesting has likewise used his Twitter account since the shooting and community uproar to emphasize the residents’ right to protest and the peace residents and police can create by working together.

“To all the citizens out in the community helping clean up & those who are peacefully speaking your mind, I thank you!” he wrote Aug. 18.

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