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Two years after Michael Brown shooting: How has Ferguson changed?

Progress watch

In August 2014, the shooting death of an 18-year-old black man by police led to outrage and rioting in Ferguson, Mo. Two years later, the city has seen an evolution of activism and heightened civic engagement. 

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    Protesters march to mark the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown being shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, Aug. 9, 2015.
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On Aug. 9, 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot dead by police in Ferguson, Mo., sparking a wave of protests that enflamed a nationwide – and, eventually, worldwide – movement. 

Two years later, the city of Ferguson, still seen by many as the embodiment of all that is wrong with police-community relations in the United States, has made significant changes in its governmental leadership, structure, and policing strategies. 

But much of the positive change that has emerged as a result of Brown's death, residents say, comes from increased dialogue and engagement among citizens.

Growing up in Ferguson, racially biased policing was something that was taken for granted, resident Kiersten Powers told St. Louis Public Radio last week.

"Now ... there's people paying attention to it, and a lot of people are starting to see that it’s not just us exaggerating or us complaining about things that really don’t exist," Ms. Powers said. "It's kind of helped, and it’s kind of made people feel less crazy. I think it's made me feel less crazy because it's like, 'oh – I’m not the only one seeing this.' "

An increased awareness and newly opened dialogue has resulted in an evolution of activism over the past two years, from protesting in the streets to finding new ways to become involved with, and improve, the community. 

"People have found where they fit in," Carlos Ball, a spoken-word artist who became an activist in 2013 after his brother was shot and killed by a St. Louis police officer, told The Root. "Some have found their [place] in politics and others in mentoring. I feel like it’s changed for the better. This generation is birthing a lot of positive people." 

A number of Ferguson activists and organizers have sought elected office since 2014, including Cori Bush, an ordained pastor and co-director of the Truth Telling Project, a nonprofit that aims to eliminate systemic racism by making local voices heard.

Ms. Bush, who was on the ballot for US Senate in the August primary election, didn't win. But she remains optimistic that her campaign, along with campaigns by several other community leaders at the local, state, and federal levels, could lead to more local activists getting involved in politics. 

"We did a lot of work [as activists], but there was no one to push through what we needed to get pushed through," Bush told The Root. "[So I thought] why not move into those positions where things can actually happen, where laws are written? This time it might have only been four of us, but the next time it could be eight, and if the next time it doubled again, then that's how we change the world."

Already, leadership in local government has undergone significant changes, as the city manager and several city council members have been replaced since 2014. And, most notably, Delrish Moss was sworn in as Ferguson's first black police chief in May.

The Christian Science Monitor's Henry Gass reported at the time: 

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.

In its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, published in March 2015, the Justice Department found evidence of "a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct" within the department, including a history of excessive traffic tickets and fines, disproportionately handed out to black residents. "Ferguson law enforcement efforts are focused on generating revenue," the report read, leading officers to "violate the law and undermine community trust, especially among African Americans." 

In March, after some haggling over costs, Ferguson officials agreed to implement reforms set forth by the Justice Department in a federal consent decree. The reforms included "changes to the conduct of searches, arrests, and general police interactions with citizens," the Monitor's Jason Thomson reported, including "an overhaul of training and a drive to recruit more minorities, as well as an increase in the use of body cameras worn by police officers." 

In the months following the Justice Department report, Missouri lawmakers passed a law limiting the profits that municipalities could keep from traffic tickets and court fines. The legislation was expanded in June to lower the maximum fines for minor traffic and ordinance violations. 

Now, the numbers show that while progress has been made since 2014, Ferguson's police department still has a way to go. Vehicle stop data from last year reveal that though officers are making about a quarter of the stops they did prior to the shooting of Michael Brown, African American drivers are still pulled over at much higher rates than white drivers.

In recent months, Ferguson's police force has made efforts to diversify by hiring more people of color, and is moving toward a new model of community policing "so that we're actually engaging citizens and getting their view on the priorities that they set for us," Chief Moss told MSNBC on Sunday. 

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, who has been in office since 2011, noted the "tremendous work" done over the past two years in setting new standards of "community-oriented" policing, both by the city and police department itself and through resident-led initiatives, such as neighborhood organizations and a steering committee made up of citizens. 

"What I hope is that someday when I tell people I’m from Ferguson ... that they’ll recognize the things that we’ve done in the past 2 years and that we’re continuing to do," Mr. Knowles told local television station Fox 2 in an anniversary interview. "I hope that that is the lasting legacy of Ferguson, and not what happened in August of 2014."

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