Ferguson panel established in wake of last year’s protests blames sharp racial disparities for igniting unrest in St Louis area after Michael Brown’s death
A drastic overhaul of policing and the criminal justice system in Ferguson, Missouri, and the surrounding region is needed to address the unfair treatment of black residents, according to a panel established by the state’s governor after last year’s civil unrest.
The Ferguson Commission on Monday blamed sharp racial disparities, which it said also extended through “housing, health, education, and income”, for turning the St Louis region into a tinder box that was ignited by the fatal shooting by police of an unarmed 18-year-old.
“We know that talking about race makes a lot of people uncomfortable,” the panel said, in a report based on an inquiry conducted over more than nine months. “But make no mistake: this is about race.” The 16-person commission said it had found repeatedly that “our institutions and existing systems are not equal, and that this has racial repercussions”.
The commission was set up by Governor Jay Nixon in November amid protests and riots over a grand jury’s decision not to prosecute Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing Brown. Wilson fatally shot Brown following an altercation in a residential side-street on 9 August last year, prompting several nights of clashes between police and protesters.
Among dozens of other recommendations, the panel called for the consolidation of St Louis County’s fragmented police and courts system, under which 60 separate police departments and 81 different courts oversee a little more than 1 million people.
The system, which was criticised by the US Department of Justice earlier this year for systematically penalising African American residents with costly fines and fees for minor offences, was described by the commission on Monday as an “impediment to justice for many of our region’s citizens”.
It called for the merging of police departments and said the Missouri state supreme court should take control of the county courts system in order to reduce it to a smaller network of fewer, larger courts.
The report proposed an extra 24 hours of training per year for police officers, including standardised anti-bias training to encourage better understanding of “implicit bias, racial profiling, fair and impartial policing, cultural and religious responsiveness” along with issues relating to LGBT people, and people with mental illnesses.
Studies have found black motorists are 75% more likely than white counterparts to be stopped by police, while black and hispanic residents were 90% more likely to be arrested than white residents, the panel found.
The commission said a statewide database recording all uses of force by police should be established. States such as California have setup similar systems, partly in response to anger over the lack of a comprehensive national monitoring by the federal government. The Guardian is counting every killing by police in 2015, along with demographic data on the people who died, in a crowdsourced reporting project.
All investigations into killings by police should be taken over by the Missouri attorney general and the state highway patrol, the Ferguson panel said, to avoid potential conflicts of interest during inquiries by local authorities. The investigation into Brown’s death by the county police and prosecutor was viewed with intense suspicion by protesters.
A county-level civilian review board with subpoena power should be established to “investigate potential criminal wrongdoing by officers and to make recommendations for prosecutions”, according to the panel, which also called for smaller civilian review boards in the dozens of municipalities in the St Louis region to monitor police departments.
The commission called for new training in constitutional rights for officials working in the municipal courts system, and proposed a detailed overhaul of such charges and their penalties. A series of reforms, including reductions in some penalties, were introduced to Ferguson’s court last month by the city’s new municipal judge.
Conflicts of interest among officials in the courts system – where people have frequently served alternately as judges, prosecutors and private attorneys in neighbouring jurisdictions – should be banned, the commission found in another recommendation. Many of the reforms would require new laws by state legislators, the panel stressed.