A week after the controversial announcement that a grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., many questions remain. Was Brown charging Wilson or surrendering? How many civilians are really killed each year by police officers? How much change will actually be effected by President Obama's new law enforcement initiatives, unveiled Monday?
Yet perhaps the chief unanswered question is, what kind of leadership will the region need as it tries to heal? In recent months, much has been made of the local leaders' failures. Gov. Jay Nixon, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles and Police Chief Thomas Jackson were sharply criticized for their absence on the ground, and for the repeated missteps and bungled responses that undermined their coordination and their competence.
And now, as the area attempts to move forward, the leadership job before them will be even harder than managing the immediate crisis.
It will require overcoming the tendency for measures to lose their urgency. A local commission intended to address the "social and economic conditions" highlighted by the Ferguson protests could bring needed changes, but only if its recommendations are taken seriously, deemed credible by the area's citizens and quickly acted upon. National initiatives, such as the ones proposed by President Obama on Monday, could take years to implement and have been called relatively modest in scope.
And of course, fixing the systemic issues — generations of racial inequality, a dysfunctional local court system, distrust between police and local communities — that helped spark the unrest is a complex, monumental challenge that could take decades.
Still, there are some medium-term actions that may help improve collaboration and build residents' trust. Todd Swanstrom, a professor of public policy administration at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, says that local leaders could make some bold initial efforts to show they're serious about taking action. At moments like these, he says, leaders "need dramatic gestures that can capture public attention."
One such gesture, Swanstrom suggests, would be to completely annul the non-violent arrest warrants in St. Louis County. As The Washington Post's Radley Balko wrote a detailed piece, those warrants have contributed to the strained police relationship in the area and what one legal aid group founder called the "vortex of debt and despair." Such a move is already underway. The city of St. Louis automatically cancelled some 220,000 arrest warrants in early October, and 65 of the 81 municipal courts in St. Louis County, where Ferguson is located, have agreed to be part of a warrant forgiveness program during December.
However, in St. Louis County, people will still have to fork over $100 to make the warrants go away, a price Swanstrom says is too high for many of those affected. The way the system is set up, he adds, "is not about safety. It's about generating revenue."
Another such gesture would be for local officials to help fund and support more community development corporations or coalitions of the city's inner-ring suburbs, Swanstrom says. These small communities "are divided. Their voices are not heard. They're not even speaking, let alone shouting." The formation of such organizations could not only help coordinate responses and concentrate efforts on the problems facing these communities, it could also bolster the development of stronger local leaders.
Norman White, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at St. Louis University, agrees that the lack of regional coordination is an issue local leaders need to take on to demonstrate their sincerity. "The poverty, the inequality, the over-policing, the warrants — all that stuff is connected across the boundaries of many of these municipalities," he says.
Moreover, it has affected the area's ability to attract funding from national grants and nonprofit foundations, according to White. Proving the region is positioned to work together better could help bring in more resources. "[The 90 municipalities in St. Louis County] have political leaders who are always competing against each other for their little pieces of the pie," White says. What's needed is "the will, from a political standpoint, for elected leaders — particularly mayors of cities and county supervisors — to be willing to come together and sublimate their egos to work together toward some common solutions."
More effort at the state level, particularly in oversight and accountability of the state's police forces, is likely also needed. Charles Menifield, a professor of public administration at the University of Missouri in Columbia, says that the governor could do more to hold local police forces accountable for their hiring practices, to provide necessary diversity training and to assess their law enforcement tactics.
"It's just not acceptable for a community to be two-thirds African American and only have three African American police officers," Menifield said. The governor, he suggests, should say as much — and should then set a target goal for greater parity and a date for achieving it. (On Sunday, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said the city would launch a scholarship program to recruit more black officers.)
Ultimately, one of the biggest leadership challenges for local officials will be to bridge the divisive public discourse, an area where they have already fallen far behind. In the aftermath of Ferguson, Swanstrom says, "what leadership would mean is to get out front of public opinion to pull people along to a more sophisticated understanding of the issue."
One of the chief tasks of the Ferguson Commission — a 16-member group of local lawyers, CEOs, police officials, educators and protestors that met for the first time Monday — will be to make real, tangible efforts at educating and building awareness. That's not only among police officers and local officials, Swanstrom notes, but with "the broad middle class on how it's implicated in these issues and why it must care."