Amid nationwide protests prompted by the death of George Floyd, the city of Ferguson, Missouri, last week elected its first black mayor and the first woman to hold the position.
It’s not the first time Ella Jones has taken office during a tumultuous time for her community. When she won a seat on the city council in 2015, becoming the first black woman to do so, the majority-black city — and the country — was grappling with the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man shot and killed by a white police officer the year before.
Brown’s death in 2014, which came amid a string of other highly publicized police killings of black people, roiled the city of Ferguson, giving rise to protests and sparking a national debate over policing practices and law enforcement’s relationship with the black community.
In response to Brown’s killing, the Department of Justice launched an investigation that determined in 2015 that the Ferguson Police Department engaged in a pattern of constitutional violations and excessive use of force. The city of Ferguson and the DOJ entered into a federal consent decree, enabling a federal judge to oversee implementation of reforms.
Today, in the wake of several high-profile killings of black people — including Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia — Jones faces continuing demands for more police accountability and for changes that break down systemic racism. She’ll also oversee how the city handles the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 100,000 people in the United States, of which a disproportionate number were people of color.
Jones spoke with the PBS NewsHour about her thoughts on police reform and this period in the country.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In the last few decades, your community, Ferguson, Missouri, has gone from being majority white to majority black. Currently black residents make up about 70 percent of the population in Ferguson. So, what does it mean for you to be Ferguson’s first black mayor, and the first woman elected to that position?
It means a lot to the people, because the people believe that they wanted a change, and they wanted a government that was inclusive. And so the people decided that the only way they can be included is elect someone that represents their interests.
This was your second time running for mayor of Ferguson, the first being in 2017. Many see this time in the United States as a period of reckoning on racial inequality. Can you tell me why you ran for office again and why you want to lead Ferguson in this moment?
Well the reason why I ran the first time, because we don’t believe that only one person should be on the ballot. And I ran the first time, and I lost by 500 votes. So we decided — we brought in a new team of people. And we looked at the stats, and we decided that this is my time — 2020 — to run, and we put together a whole new team, and people got together and they voiced their choice.
What priorities do you plan to work on first, as the next mayor of Ferguson?
Well, we have the first thing we need to work on is, you know, a couple of weeks ago there was a protest in Ferguson, where some of the protesters destroyed, damaged some of the properties of the business owners. So the first thing we’re going to do is give support to those business owners, so they can open their business. They had already been closed from the pandemic, the coronavirus. Just when they were getting ready to open again, the protests happened.
So, we are going to support them, and we’re going to look for economic development opportunities here in Ferguson — talk with different companies, different developers, see if they will come to Ferguson. Ferguson is a good place to live, work and play. Our goal is to make it the best city in the United States.
You’ve lived in Ferguson for more than 40 years and have witnessed the realities of the residents there before and after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer. And as we know Brown’s death sparked a wave of activism and scrutiny for policing. How would you evaluate the progress that’s been made in addressing policing and inequality in your community since Brown’s death in 2014?
Well, you may know that Ferguson is under a [federal] consent decree. The Department of Justice came in, and did an investigation of Ferguson, and they found a lot of things that Ferguson was doing that were not correct. So we entered into a consent decree with the Department of Justice. We have a monitor that comes, and I have a status hearing every quarter. Right now we are in the fourth year of the consent decree. We have reformed the court system.
The police department, they are working on new policies to put in place. The force is beginning to change and change for the better, because they are working to protect and serve the people, and not police the people. They are holding different events with the youth. They are coming out in the community more, so that makes a big difference, because no one wants to be policed. You want a police department that cares about the citizens that they serve. And so this is what Ferguson is working on right now.
And what do you think still needs to be done to build the community’s trust in the police and in the criminal justice system?
Well, what really needs to be done to continue the effort of trust is the police right now they need to get out of their cars a little bit more, interact with the people a little bit more. And when they stop people, they continue to treat people with dignity and respect. So, if they continue along those lines, we would achieve some of the things we want to do to make Ferguson a better place. And that people won’t be so afraid to come through Ferguson.
Over the last several months, we’ve seen more killings of black people in this country, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others. We’ve seen international uprisings and reignited calls for change to policing and systemic racism. What do you think about this moment and what’s happening in our country?
Right now we have the [millennials], and they are not going to tolerate racism, that injustice. And what’s going on now, not only do you have the African American young people out there but they have support. They have an alliance with the young white, the Hispanic, the Asian [people] — they are all working together to say, ‘enough is enough.’
And I see that as hopeful, because they want a better place for everyone to live and not just a select group of people. So the injustice, it needs to go away. And the only way we’re going to get this justice and this racism deleted out of this culture is the young people, steady, working together to push for it. I’m proud of them.
We’ve heard different opinions about the appropriate way to respond to policing practices. Some are advocating for restricting certain policing tactics like use of force. Others are promoting defunding or reducing funding for law enforcement and reallocating those funds to social services. What ideas do you think will bring about the structural change that people are calling for?
Well, most of the people, they want to fund some of the activities of the police department, and redirect them into training. I believe that the police department, every police officer needs to go through a certain amount of training. Not only the training that’s required of them, but additional training.
As far as dismantling the police department, I don’t believe in that, because if you dismantle the police department, who’s going to protect and serve at a certain point when we need the police to come? But yes, the police need additional training, and the police need to be totally aware of who they are supposed to be working for.
The police department has to be mindful that a long time ago, you may get away with doing something wrong, but there’s such a thing as a cell phone and a camera that captures everything they are doing. Those police who are not good, they need to be weeded out. Not all police are bad, but the ones that are destructive and racist, they need to be weeded out of the force. So, keeping good police is what I’m advocating for.
Our reporters have been speaking with protesters around the country. Many of them see violence against black people as a cycle that just never ends. We spoke to some people who question whether we will begin to see real change now in the United States. What do you have to say to those people who are angry and skeptical?
Well, the people who are angry and skeptical: You have to continue to get your point across. You have to continue to march and let your voice be heard. That’s the only way you’re going to bring change. And change may not happen in my lifetime; it may happen in a younger person’s lifetime. But if we consistently hammer at it, consistently work at it, consistently push the system, consistently electing new leadership, people who care about people, then we will see some change in the United States.
In addition to the conversation about race and policing, as you mentioned, we are in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Data indicates that cases of the virus are rising in some states, as they are moving forward with reopening businesses and recreational spaces. We know that this pandemic is disproportionately affecting communities of color. What do you think leaders like yourself can do to help reduce the disparities that we’re seeing amid this public health crisis?
Leaders need to understand that testing is important. Several of us got together and opened up Ferguson’s first test site to test people. And we realized the first week that we had the testing site open we were not […] testing the people that really needed to be tested. So the following week, we went to a mobile testing site. And the first place we went to was Canfield Green [apartments] with Affinia Health, and the state of Missouri, and we started testing those people who are in that underserved population. And then we’re going to start moving to every apartment complex.
So it becomes very important that whoever is mayor, whoever is in a leadership position, that they take care, and they understand that the welfare of the people is more important than anything else. And until we start looking out for the welfare of the people, we’re going to always have racial problems. In addition to that, people must understand that because a person is in an underserved portion of the city, they still deserve to be treated with respect. So leadership, it all boils down to who you have as your leader, and if the leader is going to treat everyone fairly.