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Sep 14, 2015 6:22 PM

Ferguson panel recommends merging police, other changes

The Associated Press

FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) The co-chairman of a reform panel formed after the Ferguson police shooting of Michael Brown said Monday that the group's report calling for police departments and municipal courts to be merged and other changes "reveals uncomfortable truths about this region we call home."

Rich McClure and other Ferguson Commission members acknowledge in their 198-page report that the panel has no power to enact any of the proposals. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said he backs the recommendations and during a news conference declared: "I commit to you today that these tireless efforts will not be in vain."

"Together we will lead St. Louis, our state and our country toward a brighter future of justice and opportunity for all," said the Democratic governor, who was joined by commission members at a local community college. "Where others have stepped back, Missourians have stepped up, setting an example for the rest of the nation. And we will continue to do more."

The 16-member commission's report comes 10 months after Nixon appointed the panel in November. The report, with 189 "calls to action," recommends consolidating St. Louis-area police departments and municipal courts and scaling back police use of force.

After Brown's death in August 2014, several police departments and courts, especially in north St. Louis County, were accused of targeting minorities. The report says mistrust from many black residents was a key factor in the unrest after the shooting.

Brown, 18, who was black and unarmed, was killed by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson during a confrontation. A St. Louis County grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice declined to prosecute Wilson, who is white and has since resigned, but the shooting spurred a national "Black Lives Matter" movement and led to protests and rioting in and around Ferguson.

The report says the panel heard from many black residents "who do not feel heard or respected when they interact with the police or the courts, and who do not feel that they are treated in an unbiased way."

Relations with police were strained in parts of the St. Louis region before the shooting, partly because of excessive force, the report says.

"The regular use of force has led many citizens to view the police as an occupying force in their neighborhoods, damaging community trust, and making community safety even more difficult," the report says.

It suggests new use-of-force policies, officer training and a change in department culture. It also recommends establishment of a statewide database of use-of-force incidents and statistics.

The report notes St. Louis County has 81 municipal courts and 60 municipal police departments and recommends consolidating at least 18 of those departments into just three that would oversee different areas of north St. Louis County.

The fragmentation "is not only costly and a grossly inefficient use of taxpayer resources, but more importantly presents as an impediment to justice for many of our region's citizens," the report says.

The commission also recommends a statewide plan to deal with mass demonstrations.

Some observers were skeptical about the value of the report. Remy Cross, a criminologist and sociologist at Webster University in suburban St. Louis, isn't optimistic that it will lead to significant change.

"It's hard not to be cynical of these kinds of reports given the track record," Cross said. "They (commissioners) are really not given any authority. Everybody agrees with the report, and nothing really comes of it because no one wants to pony up the money or get down to the brass tacks of the policy changes."

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said his community has made several changes, including installing a new police chief and municipal judge. He is concerned that the name of the commission is misleading.

"One of the worst things they could have done is naming it 'The Ferguson Commission,'" Knowles said. "That's not what it's about. When you do that, it makes it real easy for other communities not feeling the pressure to ask, 'Why do we need to change? There wasn't a riot in our section of the region.'"


Suhr reported from St. Louis.


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