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How tickets, fines and fees undermined police focus on community in Ferguson

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    We turn now to two members of the independent commission set up by the state of Missouri to look into the events in Ferguson. Starsky Wilson chairs the commission and is pastor of Saint John's Church in Saint Louis, and Kevin Ahlbrand is a police detective in Saint Louis and president of the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police. Tonight, he's in San Diego.

    Reverend Wilson, that was just scraping the surface of the findings in that Department of Justice report. What surprised you the most about what you read?

  • REV. STARSKY WILSON, Co-Chair, Ferguson Commission:

    Quite frankly, while the report was disheartening, the overall findings were not surprising.

    We knew, based on the testimony we have heard from people not only in the streets, but through our commission's work over the first 100 days, that people experience racialized policing, that they believed in their truth that this was driven by profit. We now see the evidence of that.

    The things that surprised me, quite frankly, were the kind of salacious narrative of the fact that we have an e-mail from the finance director of the city directly to the chief of police suggesting that revenues be raised through direct policing practices. These are the kinds of things that should never be in public — in the public administration of justice, quite frankly, and they're the kind of things that undermine the trust in governance that we need for the project of inclusive democracy to work.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Kevin Ahlbrand, what struck you, especially this part about policing for profit that Reverend Wilson just brought up? What struck you the most about that report?

  • KEVIN AHLBRAND, Ferguson Commission:

    Well, and — basically that, the whole municipal court system.

    We have known for a long time that it's been a problem. We have never condoned ticket quotas. We are vehemently opposed to them. We are supporting a bill that is currently making the way through the Missouri legislature which would reduce the percentage that cities could use fees and fines for their budget. And we have always been opposed to that.

    Part of the big problem is, if the police officer has to write X-number of tickets, that's time that he can't be out there in the community doing community-oriented policing. And that's what we have gotten away from, and I think really that that is what we need to get back to.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Reverend Wilson, are you disappointed that Darren Wilson wasn't charged with a civil rights violation?

  • REV. STARSKY WILSON:

    Quite frankly, I recognize that that's a difficult hurdle to climb.

    To prove intent, to prove someone's mind-set, we have always known was going to be significant or difficult for the Justice Department to do. So I'm not necessarily surprised by that either, quite frankly. What concerns me is the connection between these two points. If we recall, one of the things we see in the report is that some 90-plus percent of those who are stopped for walking in the street in Ferguson are African-American.

    This whole incident with Darren Wilson and Michael Brown began because of someone stopping someone in the middle of the street. So, when we think about the culture that's created in the police department and we connect it to the incidents of that particular day, then we see how the leadership and culture needs to be reformed. And that is what concerns me more than anything else.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Kevin Ahlbrand, because you both serve on the Ferguson Commission together, maybe you talked about this, but what about this idea of a culture that not only rewarded officers for writing multiple tickets for what seemed to be passing violations, but also that could be in a situation, say, stopping someone for walking in the street that could escalate?

    Is that typical? Is that fair to say that that is what many people in the Ferguson department expected?

  • KEVIN AHLBRAND:

    Well, and I'm not sure.

    And the whole Michael Brown-Darren Wilson case about why he was stopped, there are only two people that know that. So I don't think that's a good example. This is not only a police problem. This is a societal problem, and we have to get back to, like I said before, the community-oriented policing.

    Much of the problems with police departments are the federal cops grants went away. Cities face budget crises. Police departments were downsized. And at a lot of these departments, they do not have time to get out there in the community and do what they really need to do.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, let me ask you to expand on that. I'm curious what you mean when you said community-oriented policing.

    If all of these incidents that are detailed in this Department of justice report are true — and they're anecdotal incidents — dog bites being — dogs being sent after individuals or people being pulled over because of a non-functioning traffic — parking light that turned out to be functioning, and then put in jail, if these kinds of things happen, how do you separate that out from the kind of situation that Darren Wilson found himself involved in that escalated so tragically?

  • KEVIN AHLBRAND:

    Well, and I don't really want to talk about anecdotal incidences.

    But, hey, if there are systemic problems, I believe that those problems start from the top, if they truly are systemic. The rank and file go out and do what they are told to do. So I think we need to start looking at management in some of these instances.

    And, like I said, the time that they're — spent writing tickets is the time that they cannot be out there doing the proper things.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Starsky Wilson, what — your job as chairman of this commission is to try to figure a way forward. After a year of this, and now with this report on the books, do you see a way forward?

  • REV. STARSKY WILSON:

    I do see a way forward.

    I encourage people who read this 102-page report to read all the way to the end, because there's hope around page 90, when we begin to look at the recommendations going forward. They're the kinds of things that Kevin is talking about, to reorient policing in this particular department and then, quite frankly, regionally, on things like community-oriented policing, to begin to look at and to appropriate not only community engagement, but, in some spaces, community accountability, and to take this report and to put it in conversation with the 21st Century Task Force report that we got from the president's task force on Monday to continue to review the criminal justice systems.

    To Kevin's point, and I think appropriate, this is not just about policing. It is about policing as connected to the municipal courts. In our region, it is uniquely driven by municipal fragmentation that costs money. And so the revenue source that is most controllable is that that comes from tickets, fines, and fees. And so that's the spigot that got turned on in this situation.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, Kevin Ahlbrand, does that mean the basic structure has to be reordered, whether it's disbanding the police department in the city or changing the municipal court structure?

  • KEVIN AHLBRAND:

    Well, and I think that's a — that's a big task to take.

    There are 65, I believe, police departments in Saint Louis County. I think that's way too many. I think the discussion — and it has started — that we need to look at reorganizing this. And it's going to take a long time. But if we get the right people involved and the community behind us, I think we can get it done.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Kevin Ahlbrand, the head of the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police, and the Reverend Starsky Wilson, Saint John's Church and chairman of the Ferguson Commission, thank you both very much.

  • REV. STARSKY WILSON:

    Thank you.

  • KEVIN AHLBRAND:

    Thank you.

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