THE UNREST that has roiled Ferguson, Mo., since the summer has been about more than just the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. As President Obama noted on Monday, no matter what you think should have happened to Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Mr. Brown, it is clear that social tensions run deep in cities and towns such as Ferguson. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch essentially agreed, calling for change that would bridge divisions in the area. When asked, though, he didn’t have any to suggest. We can think of a few places to start.
The St. Louis suburbs are a patchwork of small municipalities that have seen waves of uneasy change as people have moved out of the city. One source of tension, as The Post’s Radley Balko documented in September, is that some of these towns rely on a system of punishments for petty crimes to fund the police, courts and other governmental institutions, and this system can trap poor people in a cycle of escalating fees. People who can’t immediately pay citations for traffic violations or other minor infractions skip court because they can’t miss work and out of fear of being jailed. The failure to appear results in the issuance of arrest warrants, with far larger fines attached.
Things would be better if there were fewer and larger municipalities and if people knew how the system worked. But reorganizing the local political boundaries would take intense and sustained effort, and the web of St. Louis-area ordinances, prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys responsible for the current system can be difficult to navigate.
Among the first official acts the Ferguson city council took following the Brown slaying was to ease some municipal fees, a step toward addressing residents’ broad range of concerns. Other concerns include a nearly all-white police force in a majority-African American town and its use of military-style gear to quell protests.
The first step toward the constructive change that almost everyone says they want is to restore peace in Ferguson without trampling the right of demonstrators to protest. Then the hard work starts: Town officials around the St. Louis region should make changes in areas that, unlike the question of whether to indict Mr. Wilson, they can control. They should recognize that achieving a lasting peace will require reforms — putting body cameras on police, reducing reliance on fees, making it easier to discharge arrest warrants and doing many other things that would make life around St. Louis simpler and fairer for disadvantaged residents. The federal government also has a role: examining whether local police are enforcing the law evenhandedly and, if not, prescribing standards for them to do so.