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Why doesn’t Ferguson’s police force reflect the community?

August 14, 2014 at 6:12 PM EST
Judy Woodruff talks to Yamiche Alcindor of USA Today in for a closer look at the drama unfolding over the police killing of Michael Brown, as well as local reaction to the governor’s order for State Highway Patrol to take over security. Former Ferguson Mayor Brian Fletcher and Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch weigh in on Ferguson’s disproportionately white police force.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: For a look at what’s happening on the ground in Ferguson, we turn to USA Today reporter Yamiche Alcindor, who was there last night. She regularly covers social issues relating to criminal justice. I spoke to her a short time ago.

Yamiche Alcindor, we thank you for talking with us.

First of all, reaction to the governor’s announcement that the Missouri Highway Patrol is going to be taking over law enforcement there?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR, USA Today: Residents here for the last two days that I have been here have really been complaining about what they consider military-style policing.

People are welcoming this announcement. I just talked to a woman who said she was scared to have her child out in the street and that she was going in extra early.

I think people are really excited about. And even though they don’t know exactly what’s coming and they — and they’re still kind of worried about what the Highway Patrol is going to do, people think, if it’s not going to be tanks or tear gas, that may something will be better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you were very much there last night. You were reporting on it, tweeting about it. What did you see? Because, as you know, officials are saying people in the crowd were throwing rocks, throwing firebombs.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: So, I didn’t see people throwing rocks and firebombs. But I know that there are some images of people doing that, so I continue — I think that that might have actually happened.

What I saw mostly were people crowding in different areas, picking up their arms, saying, don’t shoot, hands up. People were in some ways aggressively walking up to police and kind of taunting them. At about 2:00 in the morning, I was at the Ferguson Police Station, and a group of six to seven people actually walked on to the Ferguson police property and were kind of taunting the police there.

Soon after, the Saint Louis County police showed up with about four trucks and about 60 officers in riot gear. So I think — I saw that. And I also saw officers with rifles drawn kind of pointing at people that they thought were either taunting them or — or that they thought might be shooting at them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about — Yamiche Alcindor, what about what happened between the police and the news media, reporters? I saw you tweeted about police yelling at you at one point.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, I should say that police yelled at me, but they also yelled at people that were in the street. They were really trying to get people just out and dispersed.

And I was taking a picture of about three to five people being arrested at about 2:30 in the morning, so the police didn’t take kindly to that. But I should say that I was also told to leave with the protesters. They had made an announcement saying people should leave the area. But they were very, very, I guess, aggressive with people at the end, saying you really need to leave. You will go to jail.

As I was leaving, I saw these people being arrested. And I thought, I’m a journalist. I need to take this picture. So, the police were not happy with me taking that picture. But I can understand that they were really just trying to get people dispersed. And these people were being arrested, and that’s kind of my experience with the police here.

And for the most part, police have been respectful of me as a journalist. So, I can say that I have been treated with respect for the majority of the time here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How would you say tempers are today? Have they cooled down at all? What’s going on in — where you are? I see people behind you.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: People are behind me. They’re protesting.

People are really not dying down. I thought the first couple of days here, OK, things are going to get — they are going to get quiet, and people are going to go home, and they’re not going to think about this anymore, but I talked to a man who lives just feet away from the spot where Michael Brown was shot.

And he said: “I — I’m happy with what we’re doing. This is the first time I have really seen people so united and so determined, and that we want the officer’s name, that we want him charged with murder.”

And I think people are still really angry. So, I think four days, five days into this, people are still really upset and people are still really organizing and making their voices heard through protests and demonstrations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yamiche Alcindor with USA Today, we thank you for talking with us.

Now we get two reactions to what’s been happening.

Tony Messenger is the editorial page editor at the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. And Brian Fletcher is a former mayor of the city of Ferguson.

And we welcome you both to the program.

Brian Fletcher, to you first.

How did the situation in Ferguson deteriorate to this point, do you think?

FORMER MAYOR BRIAN FLETCHER, Ferguson: I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to that.

I believe it’s a built-up frustration of generations of difficulties within the African-American community. Unfortunately, this tragic accident happened to occur the city of Ferguson, although I think it could happen in any large city suburb across the United States. Unfortunately, it’s been Ferguson that is getting the attention at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tony Messenger, your newspaper, the editorial page, certainly has been writing about this. I think, to many looking in from the outside, it’s hard to understand how the police force could be majority white, and the community majority African-American.

Why can there — how can there be such a disconnect or a discrepancy between the two?

TONY MESSENGER, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: I think the important thing to understand looking from the outside is how divided this community is by jurisdiction.

Ferguson is a suburb of Saint Louis. Saint Louis the city is not even in Saint Louis County. It’s its own city. So, the largest police forces in our region are Saint Louis County and Saint Louis City. We have 90 municipalities in Saint Louis County — Ferguson is one of those — many of them very small.

Many of them have police forces that they can barely afford, and so your best police officers are going to the county or going to the largest municipality, Saint Louis City, so it’s harder for the smaller police forces to actually develop strong forces that are worthy of their community and that match the demographic makeup of their community. And so that’s part of what we have here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying it’s a salary issue that causes the police force not to be representative of the community?

TONY MESSENGER: I would say salary is part of it.

I would say it’s primarily an issue where you have all of these different little municipalities fighting for some of the same officers as compared to what we have advocated for — on the editorial page, which is for the community to become one larger community, with one large police force that can be representative of the community, one large fire department that can be representative of the community, instead of all of these tiny different municipalities having their own forces.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brian Fletcher, how much has that lack of representation, do you think, contributed to the tensions there in Ferguson?

BRIAN FLETCHER: I personally don’t feel that that contributed at all.

I will tell you my vision of why there is a difficulty of having very few African-Americans on most of the Saint Louis suburbs. One is there’s a lack of African-American men and women going through the police academy. We constantly tried — when I was mayor, for six years, we constantly tried to hire African-Americans. When we did so, they were recruited from other surrounding municipalities because they had the same exact issue of seeking more African-American police officers. And they are unfortunately allowed to pay more money than we have the budget for.

It’s not for lack of trying. It’s just there is enough — not enough candidates available within the African-American community to hire them. I would like the list provided to us, if someone has a list — and certainly we have been trying to do that. Unfortunately, they’re taken from us by other larger communities, even though Ferguson is not small, we are approximately 22,000, and we are the fifth or sixth largest municipality in those 90 that Tony mentioned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How — I think, given that, I think that’s certainly part of the explanation.

But, Tony Messenger, are there other steps that could have been taken, should have been taken, in your mind, to get the community closer — working closer together with law enforcement?

TONY MESSENGER: Well, I think part of it is just taking it seriously.

In the first editorial that we wrote, for instance, we talked about the annual racial profiling numbers that come out. In the state of Missouri, it’s a state law that every municipality, every police force has to produce racial profiling numbers every year on traffic stops.

For 11 of the last 14 years, the state has gotten worse in those racial profiling numbers. More blacks as a percentage of population are picked up in most — in many municipalities based on those numbers. And every year, the numbers come out, and every year people don’t pay that much attention to it.

I don’t believe we have paid enough attention in our community, in our state to the seriousness of this driving-while-black situation, or what — how I mentioned in one of the editorials, walking while black, as this situation might have been.

These are serious situations that have built up over a generation or so, and that’s why that anger is exploding so much on the streets of Ferguson and Dellwood and all of those other municipalities right around that area right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brian Fletcher, as a former mayor, what — how do you see that?

BRIAN FLETCHER: Well, there — and there is truth. In the city of Ferguson, we are roughly 70 African-American. And I believe the last statistics showed about 83 percent or 84 percent of those pulled over as being African-American by our police officers.

But let me explain why I think that the misconception is skewed. There are surrounding communities Ferguson, approximately, like Jennings and Dellwood, Berkeley, are over 90 percent African-American. They drive through our major streets of West Florissant and Florissant.

If you have 10 individuals pulled over by a Ferguson police officer, the chances are it’s going to be in the low to mid 80 percent just by the pure fact of numbers.

The other thing that skews that is that many African-Americans have low wages. They are unable to pay for their new tags on their automobiles. They may not have auto insurance that is required by the state of Missouri.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well…

BRIAN FLETCHER: When an officer sees no tag on a plate, he is going to pull it over. It doesn’t matter the color of the individual.

I’m not saying there is not racial profiling. I’m just saying the numbers are skewed. And I’m giving you the reason why I believe the numbers are skewed as far as our city is concerned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I hear you both.

Tony Messenger, how much difference do you think it will make to have the Missouri state patrol in there providing law enforcement going forward, and how much confidence do you have that the investigation is going to be carried out in a fair and transparent way into what happened?

TONY MESSENGER: Well, first of all, I think the governor was too slow to act and I think he made the wrong decision. There was already state patrol there.

I think he would have been better off taking city of Saint Louis police officers, who have better training in this sort of specific urban situation, and put them in charge. I understand that there were some discussions about that. The governor chose to go a different way.

I hope it is beneficial. I hope it is helpful. But for it to be helpful, the militarization situation is going to have to be dialed down. The tear gas and rubber bullets and the dogs, that stuff’s going to have to go away.

And I would like to think that that’s going to work. It seems to me that the political system is now engaged all the way up to the White House. And so, in an ideal situation, things will calm down a little bit. I think it will take a couple of nights for that to happen.

If the same police officers are out there, but they’re under a different leadership, I’m not sure how much of a difference that’s going to make. I would like to think that things will be calmer tonight. I would like to think that — that it will slow down.

As to the second situation, that — what happens in that investigation will have a direct effect on how intense the protests are from here — from going forward.

I think that the prosecutor, the FBI, whomever is ultimately in charge of this investigation, is going to have to be transparent, and be transparent soon. Right now, we just don’t have enough information. And so the people in the community, primarily African-American people, do not trust the state of the investigation right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And former Mayor Fletcher, very quickly to you. Do you have confidence in this investigation?

BRIAN FLETCHER: I do. I believe, ultimately, that a thorough investigation will be done.

Judy, I do want to indicate this is not indicative of the Ferguson community. That is proven, but those arrested so far doing the looting, that they are not from the city of Ferguson. They’re from surrounding communities, one so far as from Dallas, Texas.

If you ask somebody to interview, you ask if they live in Ferguson, what street they live on, you’re interviewing a lot of non-residents. And this is not indicative of our wonderful community that’s been here for 120 years.

And we’re meeting tonight as community leaders to come up with a way to overcome this negative publicity we’re getting, and unjustly so. I don’t believe, in the history of Ferguson, have we ever had an African-American teen shot by a police officer, ever.

Unfortunately, this is a tragic situation, but it’s more about Ferguson. It’s about a national and regional situation. It’s wider. And, unfortunately, I think the memory of Michael Brown is being exploited by many people that don’t care about him or the family. They care about their own personal concerns.

And that’s the sad part about this situation. We have a lot of healing to do in Ferguson. And I am going to be a part of that. And I ask others to join with us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we do hear the both of you. And we thank you for joining us, former Mayor Brian Fletcher and Tony Messenger, who is the editorial page editor for the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch.

BRIAN FLETCHER: Thanks, Judy.

TONY MESSENGER: Thank you.