Ferguson gets a new police chief. Will it help?

Major Delrish Moss, the first African-American to permanently head the Ferguson Police Department, has some big ideas about diversity and community relations.

Matias J. Ocner/The Miami Herald/AP
Maj. Delrish Moss, shown here at a Miami-Dade press conference earlier this year, will be sworn in as the first African-American police chief in Ferguson, Mo., on Monday.

The city of Ferguson, Mo., is hoping to turn a corner in community-police relations with the induction of a brand new police chief.

Major Delrish Moss will be sworn in Monday as the city's first permanent African-American police chief, taking reins of an embattled police department that faces questions about disproportionate treatment of the city’s majority-black residents. The 32-year veteran of the Miami Police Department has some experience dealing with racial tensions, which he hopes will help shape how Ferguson police interact with citizens in a city that is still reeling from the weeks of civil unrest that followed the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in August 2014. 

“I know that when I get there, I am going to face some push back from the community, from members of the department. Change doesn’t come easily, but I think I’m ready for that challenge. I think I’ve been doing the training for that challenge for the last 32 years,” Maj. Moss, who retired from the Miami Police to take the position in Ferguson, told local CBS affiliate KMOV.

One particular goal is to improve the police force's diversity, which he told The New York Times has just three or four African-American officers out of a 54-officer force. The lack of black police officers became a point of contention for protesters, who say the force is unrepresentative of the community, which is two-thirds black. That disparity has fostered an environment, protesters say, in which young black suspects face unfair scrutiny.

An encounter with a police officer who unexpectedly stopped and frisked him as a teenager growing up Miami’s Overtown neighborhood amid crime and rioting in the 1980s also shaped his decision to join the police force.

“I was embarrassed and scared,” Moss told the Miami Herald. “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.”

A long-running desire to bridge the gap between the community and the police informed Moss's career path. After several years as a homicide detective, he became a department spokesman in 1995 and came to oversee community and media relations for the police department.

“He is an expert in police community relations and that is what that community needs now,” Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes told the Herald.

But in Ferguson, which gained a national spotlight two years ago after the deadly shooting of Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, by police officer Darren Wilson, who is white, sparked large-scale protests and riots, improving fractured relationships may be an uphill battle.

A Justice Department inquiry last year confirmed protesters' suspicions that Ferguson police were stopping African-Americans much more frequently than whites, often without legal justification, for cash gains. After city council members rejected a consent decree between the government and city officials, Attorney General Loretta Lynch filed a civil rights lawsuit that painted a disturbing picture of relations between residents and the police force.

While African-American residents make up 67 percent of the population, they’re twice as likely to be searched and arrested as whites and account for 88 percent of the incidents where police officers use force, the department found.

Moss will replace Andre Anderson, who is also African-American but who was only hired on an interim basis to replace former police chief Thomas Jackson. Mr Jackson, who is white, resigned in March 2015. Mr. Anderson, who came from Glendale, Ariz., also resigned a month early in November.

In an interview with the Times, Moss said his intention wasn’t to “re-litigate the Michael Brown situation,” but to draw on his experience in Miami to work to improve relationships between the police and community in Ferguson, including creating a mentoring program.

“We not only solve crime, we prevent crime because of the relationship. When the relationship is bad, that suffers. Police officers come into a neighborhood 10 hours a day, but it’s the people who live there who know what’s going on. If they don’t want to talk to the police or deal with the police, you’re not going to solve anything and you’re certainly not going to prevent anything,” he told the Times.

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