Professor Kami Chavis Simmons co-authors article about policy changes to hold Ferguson accountable in The Michigan Citizen

Photo of Wake Forest Law School Professor Kami Chavis

Professor of Law and Director of the Criminal Justice Program Kami Chavis

The grand jury has made its decision. Now is the time for city, county and state officials in Missouri to work to restore the legitimacy they lost through the events surrounding the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. Racially-disproportionate stops, excessive court fines, police aggression and other factors also suggest government is not serving all citizens equally. This inequality is also reflected in Ferguson’s political representation.

Although 67 percent of Ferguson is African American, most of its elected and appointed officials are white (its city manager, mayor, five of six city council persons, police chief, and 94 percent of police officers). A majority of students are Black in the school district Ferguson shares with neighboring Florissant, but six of the seven school board members are white.

Ferguson was unwillingly thrust into the spotlight, but now it has the opportunity to become a model for reform. As Ferguson moves forward, several state, county and local solutions could help restore trust and ensure Ferguson is more accountable to its residents. The following are some recommendations from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies:

  •  Strengthen the state Racial Profiling Act. Missouri currently is one of the few states with a racial profiling act. Although it records racial disparities in police stops, it does not impose penalties. For example, the Missouri state attorney general’s racial disparity index found, in Ferguson, Blacks are more than twice as likely to be stopped, searched and arrested. However, searches of Ferguson Blacks produce contraband only 21.7 percent of the time, while searches of whites produce contraband 34 percent of the time. A state reduction of funding due to these disparities would give Ferguson officials financial incentives to change course.
  • Require professional liability insurance. In addition to financial accountability for racial profiling, mandating professional liability insurance for police officers could create financial accountability for excessive force. For example, a plan could allow a city to pay the base rate for the insurance, but could make the officer accountable for any premium increase due to excessive complaints or lawsuits filed against that officer.
  •  Enhance use-of-force monitoring. Local, county and state officials should develop or improve: use of force procedures and internal investigations of use of force; an early warning system to identify and track officers involved in use-of-force incidents or other citizen complaints; and an independent citizen review board or independent law enforcement commission with subpoena power. The federal government already has launched a “pattern or practice” investigation that could result in similar reforms developed and implemented with federal oversight. State, county, and city officials, however, should take the lead and work to implement sustainable reforms immediately.
  •  Increase city manager accountability. Ferguson’s unelected city manager serves as its full-time chief executive with the power to appoint, manage and terminate city employees (including the police chief). In contrast, the elected mayor is a part-time City Council member with some ceremonial duties. The city manager currently has an indefinite term, and can be removed only by a supermajority vote of the City Council. Limiting the city manager to a definite term (e.g., four years) with citizen input and a majority City Council vote for reappointment could make the city manager more responsive.
  •  Change election timing. Whereas whites and Blacks in Ferguson were almost equally likely to vote in the 2012 November presidential elections (55 percent of whites and 54 percent of Blacks voted), whites were almost three times more likely than Blacks to vote in the April 2013 municipal elections (17 percent of whites and 6 percent of Blacks voted). Changing election timing for mayor, City Council and school board from April to the November presidential elections could save money, boost turnout of residents from all backgrounds, and make government more representative.

Other steps could boost accountability as well, including dash police vehicle and body cameras, a probable-cause requirement for stops (higher than reasonable suspicion), and better hiring and training procedures. Local government could also be more representative by replacing at-large school board elections with single-member districts or ranked choice voting, early voting (including on weekends), same day registration, and compliance with federal law requiring voter registration at state offices. Further, officials should examine municipal consolidation, outsourcing police services to St. Louis County, and significant municipal court reforms.

Policy proposals are meaningless without effective community organizing. Engaged citizens are needed to develop a pipeline of representative candidates, to organize voter registration and mobilization, and to endorse representative candidates and distribute slates that flag them for voters in nonpartisan elections.

Kami Chavis Simmons is a law professor and the director of the Criminal Justice Program at Wake Forest University. Justin Hansford is a St. Louis University law professor. Spencer Overton is a GWU law professor and the interim president of the Joint Center, a thinktank that studies race. The professors are working on a Joint Center research report on policy options to make Ferguson more accountable to citizens.

View the original ariticle on The Michigan Citizen.