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How Ferguson heals: beyond police chief, need for deeper change

Paths to progress

Experts applaud the choice of Delrish Moss as the new police chief of Ferguson, Mo. But he'll need the help of a changed city. 

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    Ferguson city council members Wesley Bell (l.) and Linda Lipka (r.) talk with the new Ferguson police chief Delrish Moss after he was sworn into service at the Ferguson Community Center on Monday in Ferguson, Mo.
    David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP
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In Delrish Moss, officials in Ferguson, Mo., hope they’ve found a new police chief that embodies the close police-community relationship they’re hoping to build.

But the protest that took place as he was sworn in illustrates the deep skepticism and distrust the new head of the Ferguson Police Department will have to overcome. That he immediately went outside to meet with the protesters Monday displays why he was chosen in the first place.

From his upbringing to his law enforcement career, Chief Moss seems to tick every box in terms of the person the fractured city needs to rebuild after two turbulent years. He is reportedly accepting a $40,000 pay cut just to take the job.

But experts say Moss’s hiring, by itself, is not enough to put Ferguson on a path to healing the rifts exposed by a black teen’s killing by a police officer in 2014. Rather, the hire must be only one sign of a changed mind-set that percolates to all levels of the city, they add.

“The fact remains that Ferguson has never had anything other than a deeply flawed and predatory police force,” writes Brendan Roediger, a professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law, in an e-mail to the Monitor.

Reforming that legacy will take persistent effort beyond what one man can do, he and others add. Ferguson still has to prove that it is willing to face up to its problems.

“Whatever great ideas he may have, he is not entering a culture ready for change,” Professor Roediger says.

What Moss faces

In its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, the United States Justice Department laid out the scope of the challenge Moss faces.

The report revealed “a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct” within the department. For example, the push to generate revenue for the city through traffic tickets and fines was so intense that it “has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson.” These fines fell disproportionately on black residents.

Moreover, the Justice Department report pointed to a systemic racial bias “that Ferguson has long recognized but failed to correct.” While the community is more than two-thirds black, the police force is 90 percent white; five of its 50 officers are black.

Though Moss has experience as a beat cop and homicide investigator, he appears to have been brought in principally to repair relations between the police and the community.

“He has experience in pretty much every level of policing,” says Wesley Bell, a Ferguson city councilman. “Having had the chance to talk to him, he seems to get it. He’s very experienced in community policing – which is very important to myself, as well as the rest of the council and residents.”

That grows from his experience growing up as a black teen, Moss told the Miami Herald.

When he was stopped and searched by police, “I was embarrassed and scared,” he said. “I decided I needed to become a police officer to teach these people how to treat people. Also, I hoped to become his boss and fire the guy.”

In his 32 years as a cop, Moss spent the last 20 in Miami as the department’s public information officer. That could prove especially useful.

“The public information officer is usually a very good communicator, and oftentimes in law enforcement it’s the breakdown in communication that causes so many issues,” says Tod Burke, a criminal justice professor at Radford University in Virginia and a former Maryland police officer.

“Hopefully with effective communication skills he’ll be able to provide the calm that the community needs in Ferguson,” he adds. “[And] being a police officer he also has that bond with law enforcement, so he may be able to understand both sides of the issue.”

“I think it’s a good hire. He may be the right person at the right time,” he adds.

For starters, Moss has pledged to recruit African Americans. But that points to his need for broader support. Dominica Fuller, a Ferguson police sergeant, told Reuters last summer that the department’s recruitment efforts were largely failing.

“There’s not a lot of minorities that want to be police officers, let alone in the city of Ferguson,” she said.

Such a recruitment effort would also not be cheap, Professor Burke says.

“There are other agencies, and other agencies may pay more or have better benefits,” he adds. “All of this gets back to resources. How much money does Ferguson wish to put into the hiring of new officers and the revamping the equipment and so forth?”

Mr. Bell of the city council says that he doesn’t think improving recruitment will “require any additional significant funding.” He suggests that that the department’s increased emphasis on community policing – a core part of the consent decree the city agreed to with the Justice Department – will help make it more appealing to African-American officers.

“There’s a playbook, case studies, and research that show ways we can recruit,” he adds. “When you start engaging the public and the confidence and trust level increases, you will find people want to get involved in the police department.”

'I was one of those families' 

Throughout the hiring process, Moss has emphasized his upbringing in Miami’s high-crime, majority-black neighborhood of Overtown. He told The Miami Herald he applied for the Ferguson position after scenes of the riots there two years ago reminded him of similar unrest in Overtown.

“I lived in Overtown when it burned,” he told the Herald. “The people hurt the most are not the police or the businesses outside the area. It’s the people who live there. And I was one of those families.” 

Lowering the police use of violent force and the number of arrests – particularly for low-level traffic citations – will go a long way in regaining community trust, writes Justin Hansford, a professor at the St. Louis University School of Law, in an e-mail to the Monitor.

But his greater challenge may be within the department itself.

“He has to make a drastic shift in organizational culture first,” writes Professor Hansford. “How will he make a clean break from that toxic culture of predatory, racist policing?”

“The real problems here are structural and institutional. Good leadership can help, but it's not enough,” he adds. “Structural transformation is needed.”

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