The top elected official here says he had limited authority to tackle enormous problems and quell racial tensions.
“I make $350 a month before taxes for being part-time mayor of Ferguson,” Mayor James Knowles told USA TODAY. “You want to hold me accountable for not knowing that some employees were sending racist e-mails. I have no executive authority. I have no administrative authority. The charter doesn’t allow me to hire, fire or even give direction to city employees.”
Ferguson’s city manager, police chief and municipal judge have been forced out of their jobs, after a Justice Department probe published earlier this month found that Ferguson police and the city’s municipal court had engaged in systemic patterns of misconduct.
Knowles said he’s dedicated to helping this city turn around as it continues to grapple with the fallout of the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, who was fatally shot by a white police officer. Brown’s killing spurred months of occasionally violent protests.
Knowles, who claimed early in the protests that Ferguson has no racial divide, has had a bumpy ride and remains under fierce scrutiny. He said his supporters have told him that there’s a possible mayoral recall effort underway.
In the days since the resignation of the top officials — as well as a few lower level Ferguson cops and bureaucrats — protesters and some community leaders have turned the attention to Knowles, saying that he must resign, and that the city should disband their police department and build it anew to help the city heal. He said he has been told by supporters that they have been approached to gather signatures to begin a mayoral recall.
On Wednesday, two police officers were wounded outside the Ferguson Police Department at the end of a protest following the announcement that Police Chief Tom Jackson was stepping down. No suspects have been identified.
“Dismantling the police department would be the ultimate thing to do — outside of the mayor leaving,” said state Rep. Courtney Curtis, a Democratic lawmaker whose district includes Ferguson. “I don’t think we have time. I don’t think the patience is there. The damage has been done and the damage is being done each day they drag their feet.”
But Knowles questioned what good his resigning would do.
“I realize everybody is out there singing for ceremonial heads to be rolling,” said Knowles, who indicated many Ferguson residents have pleaded with him to stay in the job. “So you’re going to put another council member in my place?”
While activists and some lawmakers are pressing for quick and widespread reform in how the city operates its police and courts, the Justice Department is likely, if past behavior is any precedent, to push Ferguson to make substantive reforms. But it will also give this St. Louis suburb some space to enact them.
Under Attorney General Eric Holder, who is soon expected to step down from his post, the Justice Department has launched more than 20 investigations of police departments — including in cities such as Cleveland, Miami and Portland — for patterns of misconduct that have suggested police brutality, abuse of the mentally ill and racial bias.
But in all those cases, the police departments have agreed to make changes that line up with the Justice Department recommendations.
In a 102-page report it released on March 4, the Justice Department called for a litany of changes in how Ferguson goes about policing. Some of the reforms call for the city to embrace community policing techniques which would allow officers to build relationships in the neighborhoods they patrol, reorient officers’ approach to using force, and provide recurring training to all officers that racial profiling and other forms of discriminatory policing won’t be tolerated.
At the heart of Ferguson’s police problems was a department that was more focused on raising revenue through tickets and fines than actually looking out for the safety of residents, the Justice Department report concluded.
Holder suggested on Thursday that he was pleased with some of the early steps taken by Ferguson officials, noting “we have begun to see really important signs of progress.”
Knowles said that Ferguson officials are expected to meet with Justice Department officials in the coming weeks to start setting a path forward.
“Whatever we do has to be sustainable for the community, and not financially bankrupt us,” Knowles said. “Obviously, if the Department of Justice wants to bankrupt us with huge burdens … they could.”
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SOURCE: USA Today – Aamer Madhani