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5 years after Michael Brown’s death, what has changed in Ferguson — and what hasn’t

It’s been five years since Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The incident sparked protests, questions about race and police brutality and a Justice Department conclusion that the city’s law enforcement practices had been unduly influenced by revenue generation. Yamiche Alcindor returns to Ferguson to see what's changed since 2014 -- and what hasn't.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary of the day Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

    His death touched off months of protests and raised questions about the police's use of force, race relations and criminal justice in the U.S..

    Political correspondent Yamiche Alcindor traveled back to Ferguson to see what progress has and hasn't been made.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A typical summer barbecue near what some see as hallowed ground. It was here five years ago that officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

  • Fran Griffin:

    To me, that just — little patch just reminds me of exactly where it happened at. I can't drive over it. I don't know what that is. I don't know how to explain it or why, but I can't. I drive around it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Fran Griffin helped organize this event as part of the Southeast Ferguson Community Association. The group was formed in the wake of Brown's death to provide community services.

    Like many others, Griffin was spurred to protest after Brown was killed. And, earlier this year, she won a seat on Ferguson's City Council, becoming the first black woman to represent her ward.

  • Fran Griffin:

    When Michael Brown Jr. was killed, it changed the lives of so many people, not just here in Ferguson, but throughout the entire world.

    It changed my life. I never, ever would have thought that I would have been a politician, but I found something that I could do that would help my community.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Brown's death thrust Ferguson, a city of 22,000, into the national spotlight. Images of police in armored vehicles firing tear gas at protesters and demonstrators setting fire to businesses fueled intense debate.

    Now, as another anniversary approaches, many are taking stock of what has changed.

  • James Knowles III:

    We have a lot of new staff members around City Hall. We have a lot of new staff people especially in the police department. We have a lot of new council members.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    James Knowles is mayor of Ferguson. He's one of the few remaining city officials from 2014. He remains the target of intense criticism but insists the city has made meaningful strides.

  • James Knowles III:

    We have a tremendous amount of new officers in our police department, a much more diverse police department than we had in the past.

    Our courts are much more focused on working with people to not get caught in that trap of that kind of cycle of being in the court system through traffic tickets or housing fines.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Of course, many of those reforms were mandated by a Justice Department consent decree.

    In 2015, the DOJ concluded law enforcement practices in Ferguson were — quote — "shaped by the city's focus on revenue, rather than public safety needs."

    It also determined that African-Americans were arrested at disproportionate rates, and some without probable cause. Statewide, black drivers are still nearly twice as likely as others to be stopped. In Ferguson, the disparity in traffic stops of black drivers has also increased by 5 percent since 2013.

    Yet Ferguson has reduced its ticketing. In 2014, the city issued nearly 12,000 tickets. Most were for minor municipal code violations. In 2017, that number was under 2,000. Now revenue has fallen from nearly $2 million in 2014 to just under $400,000 in 2017.

    The municipal court has also vacated nearly 10,000 arrest warrants. There have also been broader changes.

  • Wesley Bell:

    We know this issue isn't limited to the borders of Ferguson.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Last year, Wesley Bell was elected Saint Louis County prosecutor. The former Ferguson city councilman defeated longtime Republican Bob McCulloch, who declined to indict Officer Wilson.

  • Wesley Bell:

    It was more of the typical incarcerate your way out of every problem. Someone is struggling to pay child support, put him on probation or lock them up. Someone has a drug issue, put him on probation or lock them up. And that exacerbates the problem.

    Any of you who work the streets know you're seeing the same people over and over who just need treatment.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Instead, he is prioritizing pre-trial diversion programs, cash bail reform, and decriminalizing low-level drug charges.

  • Wesley Bell:

    We want to make sure that people who are incarcerated need to be incarcerated, and those that do not need to be shouldn't see the inside of a jail.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Since Bell has been in office, Saint Louis County's jail population has dropped by 20 percent.

    There are still serious questions over just how much change has come to Ferguson. Storefronts like these remain shuttered and development is slow. And there are still stark racial divisions and deep tensions between the community and police.

    Councilwoman Griffin worries the Third Ward, which has the highest percentage of black residents and the lowest income levels, is not getting enough resources.

  • Fran Griffin:

    In terms of just the little small mom-and-pop stores, like, those aren't existing. You have got a few beauty supply houses. You have got a few beauty salons and nail shops. But in terms of actually providing resources to people where they can get — in walking distance where they can go and shop, I would say no.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Last week, a Missouri nonprofit announced plans for a new development project. It will include a health care center and possibly a grocery store.

    Still, some in the city remain deeply worried about interactions with the police and racial profiling.

  • Marcus Hicks:

    If anything, it feels the same. I don't feel like nothing different. I don't feel like it's enhanced or anything like that. I don't even feel like I can call the police to save myself.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Marcus Hicks and Travis Bowl, both 22, live in Ferguson and saw the protests here in 2014.

  • Travis Bowl:

    Like, being a black male, it's just — like, I feel like it's — it's just like it's never going to change. Like, they're going to forever think we're on some type of B.S. or some type of gangbanger stuff and stuff like that.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Yet some wrongly believe black residents deserve extra scrutiny.

  • Judy McCarty:

    If you watch how some of these people drive, you know what — you know what color they are. I'm not prejudiced, but we can tell by the way they drive.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Judy McCarty has lived in Ferguson since she was 2 and lives just blocks from where Brown was killed. And while her husband William says some court reforms were needed:

  • William McCarty:

    When you come in to pay a ticket, and you have got four other outstanding warrants, and they put you in jail, you can't pay your fine if you're in jail. You're not going to be working.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Still, they worry things have gone too far.

  • Judy McCarty:

    Let's not go the opposite way, where the — the way there seemed to be going now, and there's no punishment for abusing the law.

  • William McCarty:

    Right.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    At the same time, Ferguson's independent monitor testified the city needs to do more to actually implement policy changes, including new police training.

    But Mayor Knowles says the costs are too high, which has rankled many activists.

  • James Knowles III:

    There is no police department in Missouri, very few in this country, that do all of the things that are required by our consent decree. We have to go through more hoops. We have to endure more training, more scrutiny.

  • Fran Griffin:

    To them, the mind-set is, it's not fair that we're being penalized because of what happened here, because everybody else was doing it.

    That's the wrong mind-set to have.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Griffin says it's that kind of sentiment that makes her concerned the city may revert to its old practices.

    But she's also confident in the momentum of the last five years.

  • Fran Griffin:

    Whenever I pass up the space, like, it's a constant reminder of the — what my responsibilities are.

    It's a constant reminder of the pain that an entire community felt. And it's just a constant that we have got to keep fighting.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor in Ferguson, Missouri.

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