“No Justice, No Peace” / Shawn Semmler

September 14, 2015; New York Times

The Ferguson Commission released its final report yesterday, with conclusions basically along the lines of the recommendations that were largely disclosed a month ago. That shouldn’t make the conclusions of this yearlong effort any less meaningful, given what has occurred in the interim—numerous incidents of excessive police force resulting in the deaths of unarmed black civilians in Cincinnati, New York City, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Waller County, Texas.

In a way, the report is a compilation of corrective recommendations that go far beyond the police violence that resulted in the death of Michael Brown. Some of the Commission’s “calls for action” address policing issues:

  • Shifting the prosecution of cases involving potential police use of force resulting in injuries or death to the auspices of the state attorney general (rather than, as in the case of Michael Brown, the county) and the investigation of such cases to the Missouri Highway Patrol (as opposed to local police)
  • Establishing a “use of force database” to develop statistical information for determining trends warranting official intervention and developing new rules and training for police use of force
  • Increasing the training provided to police on issues such as implicit bias and cultural responsiveness
  • Creating civilian review boards at the municipal and county levels
  • Major reforms in sentencing, including eliminating incarceration for minor offenses, developing alternative sentencing options, treating nonviolent offenses as civil rather than criminal violations, creating community justice centers, and fixing the region’s process of collecting civil debts like criminal violations
  • Replacing the micro-jurisdictions’ control of police and courts by consolidating police departments and municipal courts

Those recommendations address the structural and policy issues that led to the killing of a black teen in the streets of Ferguson by a white policeman, but the Commission went beyond to address an array of social and economic conditions that express the inequities facing young black men and women in Ferguson and nationwide:

  • Supporting “the whole child” by establishing school-based health centers, reforming school discipline policies, and ending hunger for children and their families (the report calls for the expansion of SNAP and WIC programs and facilitating SNAP enrollment by developing a policy of “presumptive eligibility”)
  • Investing in early childhood education and developing educational innovation “hubs” in schools
  • Supporting other ameliorative policies such as expanding Medicaid eligibility, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, taking action against predatory lenders (by capping the maximum APR at 36 percent), creating or expanding child development accounts and individual and family development accounts, supporting community development banks, and developing programs of multi-generational financial education
  • A variety of recommendations to promote affordable housing while avoiding the overconcentration of low-income housing in impacted communities, encouraging job creation opportunities through collaboration between educational institutions and employers, enacting inclusionary zoning ordinances, and increased support for public transportation

In a way, some of those non-policing, non-judicial recommendations feel a little “stock,” like they could have been drawn from any number of studies, reports, and commissions from dozens of communities across the nation. Underlying the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner, to name a few, is the issue of racial discrimination—overt and covert, explicit and implicit, personal and institutional. In the area of “further(ing) racial equity in the region,” the report offers the following calls for action:

  • “Intentionally apply a racial equity framework to existing and new regional policies, initiatives, programs and projects in order to address and eliminate existing disparities for racial and ethnic populations.”
  • “Create a 25-year managed fund to solely support regional racial equity infrastructure for all sectors… for racial equity capacity, needs and training assessment, analysis, implementation, impact, sustained strategies and accountability.”
  • “Faith communities and authorized faith leaders are called to directly engage in networks and tables of policy discussion across the region to shape how we work together and inform the conversation directly.”

All of the report’s recommendations or calls to action get some useful detail, largely drawn from other studies, regarding their operationalization, but there is little detail to the “racial equity” recommendations. If the issue at the heart of the police violence is really racial discrimination and racial inequity, then the answers actually lie in the calls for changes in policing, the judicial system, the educational system, and community factors such as housing and jobs. Rather than looking for the racial inequities that might be embedded in proposed policies and programs, the onus should be the reverse. New policies and programs that explicitly overcome institutional and structural racism in the courts and the economy should be actively promoted and pursued with a strong racial justice analysis. If the nation is to overcome its layers of institutional and structural racism, it’s time for racial justice advocacy to take to the offense.

There’s no shocking analysis and recommendation in the Ferguson Commission report. What is missing, co-chair Rich McClure indicated, is the implementation mechanism, the creation or designation of an organization to own and guide the implementation of the recommendations. Whatever that organization might be, it would have to sort through a total of 189 recommendations or calls to action. Observers largely supportive of the Commission’s recommendations, such as St. Louis city council member Antonio French and Democratic state senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, expressed some skepticism that the commission’s work would lead to action. To date, actions that the state could have taken without waiting for the Commission’s report, such as body cameras for police officers and changes in the rules for police use of lethal action, were not supported by the state legislature this year.

Think back to the Kerner Commission and other comprehensive reviews during and in the aftermath of the War on Poverty and much of the Civil Rights Era. The implementing agency was the federal government, enacting powerful and synoptic legislation and programs that galvanized the nation, even if only for a while. In the case of Ferguson, the Commission has produced its own comprehensively researched report, but the receiving entity to carry out the breadth and depth of its recommendations doesn’t seem to be in the room.—Rick Cohen