FERGUSON, Mo. — In the first year after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer, voters here elected two African Americans to the City Council, giving black residents almost equal representation in the city for the first time in history.
Until then, five of the six members of the council, as well as the mayor, were white — in a city that is nearly 67 percent black. More than 25 percent of Ferguson voters cast ballots in last year’s municipal elections — the highest voter turnout since 1999. But while the turnout went up drastically, the total number was so low as to be almost negligible.
The council also appointed African Americans as the new city manager and human resources director and, most recently, hired a veteran officer from the Miami Police Department as its police chief.
“In general, you saw a community that was willing to answer the call,” said Wesley Bell, one of the new council members. “We can’t deny the fact that oftentimes tragedies are the catalyst for change. Far too often, what happens is that if someone complains or protests or demonstrates, they’ll be pacified, but not in a manner that’s sustainable.”
Brown was killed on Aug. 9, 2014, by Darren Wilson, a police officer who was responding to a call of a man who had stolen cigarillos from a convenience store. Later that year, a grand jury of predominantly white jurors declined to indict Wilson, inciting rioting and protests across the city.
“The reason Ferguson happened the way it happened had a lot to do with people not being a part of the process,” said Ferguson Police Chief Delrish Moss, who was sworn in earlier this year. “You have a city that is 67 percent African American and before the civil unrest, you had one African American official.”
Bell, who represents Ward 3, Ferguson’s most highly concentrated area of black residents, said a black council member had never been elected to represent the ward.
Since coming to Ferguson, Moss has been going door to door throughout the city introducing himself to residents. Dennis Williams was inside his house on Edgehill Drive talking to his sister on the phone as the new police chief passed by his window. Wary of police, he hung up the phone and went outside.
Moss was walking the streets with City Councilwoman Ella Jones, the first black woman elected to the City Council. “I’m quite sure a lot of the neighbors like to see you,” Williams said to Jones at the doorsteps of his home. “It’s good to see that both of you are approachable.”
After Brown’s death, the Justice Department investigated the city’s policing and municipal court practices and said they found unconstitutional practices. The Justice investigation uncovered what it later called “a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct by the FPD and the Ferguson Municipal Court, including: violating the Fourth Amendment by conducting stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause, as well as using excessive force; violating the First Amendment by interfering with the right to free expression and the right to record public police activity; and violating the 14th Amendment by engaging in racial discrimination, in both police and related court activity, as well as violating individuals’ due process and equal protection rights in court,” DOJ records show.
The Justice Department filed a lawsuit to force reforms, and it was settled with an agreement that required the city to establish a civilian review board to address excessive force and police disciplinary practices, among other things, saying the changes are needed to “ensure fundamental fairness and equal treatment regardless of race.”
“I think that we police at the pleasure of the community,” Moss said. “And I think when you forget that, when you decide that you’re going to police the community rather than police with the community, I think you lose sight of the bigger picture and you have problems.”
Just half a mile from where Brown was shot, Brandon Turner stood outside the Prime Time Barber Shop on West Florissant Avenue, where Brown occasionally came for haircuts.
“Today, it’s a little better. I mean, the police, they’re a little more lax but it’s still the county,” he said, referring to St. Louis County, where Ferguson is located. “But I feel like it’s going to start with police procedure. They can handle us any type of way they want right now, and people aren’t standing for that anymore.”
Turner said police in Ferguson need more training. “They get out of the car and their hands are automatically on their holster. What’s that all about? I’m a person, too,” Turner said.
This report is part of the project titled Voting Wars — Rights | Power | Privilege, produced by the Carnegie-Knight News 21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
Jeffrey Pierre | @mrjeffpierre
Pierre is recent graduate of Florida International University in Miami where he majored in print journalism. He has done work for publications in Miami and Washington, including the Miami Herald, WLRN and the Scripps Howard Foundation. A majority of his feature and news reporting comes from minority and mostly African American communities.
Phillip Jackson | @phillej_
Jackson is a senior at Hampton University, majoring in journalism in the Scripps Howard School of Journalism program. He worked as Web editor for his campus newspaper, the Hampton Script, and has interned with WETA, the Root and freelanced for The Washington Post Magazine. He has received fellowships with Politico, the Online News Association and the National Association of Computer Assisted Reporting.