By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
When the Missouri legislature convened earlier this year, there was hope lawmakers would pass statewide reforms to curb abuses by police, city leaders and courts system, which spawned unrest in Ferguson, after the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Brown was shot by a white Ferguson policeman, prompting a federal investigation which uncovered a number of issues, including the need for police body cameras, curbing the issuance of speeding tickets to poor residents to raise city funds, and controlling racial profiling.
But when the General Assembly adjourned earlier this month, most of these legislative reforms had not been passed. The only one of the Ferguson-related reforms which passed placed a cap on how much revenue a municipality could generate from traffic tickets, written on mostly poor and Black motorists.
The bill knocked it down from 30 percent to 20 percent and to 12.5 percent in St. Louis County, where Ferguson is located.
The bill also bans courts from jailing individuals over minor traffic offenses.
Most of the bills seeking reforms were proposed by Democrats. But Republicans control the Missouri General Assembly and rebuffed most of them.
There were bills proposing new standards for eyewitness identification, required diversity and sensitivity training of police and modified state rules governing the use of lethal force, a plan Democratic Governor Jay Nixon supported.
Supporters of such measures should not have been surprised that their goals would be thwarted.
On the first day of the 2015 legislative session last Janaury, according to the General Assembly’s communications website, the House Speaker made it clear that reformists would have a tough row to hoe.
“We’re not going to have a ‘Ferguson agenda’ here in the House,” said Republican Speaker John Diehl on Janaury 7. “I think that the Senate has indicated the same thing. I view the situation of Ferguson as really a reflection of decades of bad government policy.”
Diehl said lawmakers would look instead at issues related to economics, educational opportunities and the role and function of government.
“The men and women who serve to protect the public by defending our lives and property – they should not be scapegoats for what are bad public policy.”
But Diehl resigned last week after the Kansas City Star Newspaper reported that he had sent a sexually suggestive text to a 19-year-old intern.
“This has been a very trying year,” said Legislative Black Caucus Chairman, Democrat Brandon of Kansas City. “Speaker Diehl kept his word. There has been absolutely no positive movement on any piece of legislation that deals with law enforcement reform.”
There are 11 Blacks in the 163-member House of Representatives and three Black Senators in that 34-member chamber, according to Ellington.
Ellington said the chairmen of the originating Committees were ordered by the speaker to kill over 60 of the bills.
Ellington said bills to require body cameras, mental evaluations for police and a change in Missouri law regarding officer use of deadly force all failed.
He said public opinion polls showed even a majority of Republican voters support such measures. Ellington said he received calls and e-mails from many Republicans supporting the caucus’ stand on the issues.
But there may be hope for the next session. Diehl was replaced as House Speaker by Republican Todd Richardson of Poplar Bluff, who applauded lawmakers’ passage of the laws tightening regulation of municipal courts and changing Missouri’s student transfer law.
“I don’t think that he will put a blockage on these bills like we’ve seen from the last administration,” said Ellington. “I have had a good working relationship with the news speaker during my time in the House. I hope that translates into some progress.”
Rev. Cassandra Gould, of the Quinn Chapel Baptist Church in Jefferson City, said she and other activists throughout Missouri were disappointed by the outcome of the 2015 legislative session. She said the effort to pass the reformist agenda will be renewed next year.
She said that instead of passing less repressive laws, Gould said Republican lawmakers passed draconian measures which would have a direct impact on young Black men like Michael Brown.
One law would have imposed a mandatory sentence of 30 years for a criminal office on a youth under 16 and 50 years for one over 16 years of age. That bill did not pass.
She said there were other bills, pushed by Republicans restricting voting rights and allowing police to “kill a suspect if they felt their lives are being threatened.”
Gould said young activists on the ground in Ferguson are conducting a petition drive to get enough signatures to recall the current mayor of Ferguson who has refused to resign.
“Probably the best thing was Diehl resigning because of his misbehavior,” said Gould. “But our efforts will be ongoing. There is a lot of work to do. There is still a lot of things which need reforming not only in Ferguson, but statewide.”