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"In the End ... No One Really Cared"

The failure of criminal justice reform in Missouri

Scott Olson/Getty Images

On January 7, as the Missouri legislature reconvened for the first time following Michael Brown’s death, activists from Ferguson flooded Jefferson City to demand criminal justice reform. They held a “die-in” inside the capitol rotunda and unfurled banners inside the Senate chamber as the annual session began. “Pledge allegiance to black people,” read one, which hung above the heads of the new lawmakers being sworn in on the floor below.

This Sunday will mark the one-year anniversary of Brown's death, an event that catalyzed a national movement to address racial inequality and overly aggressive policing. The Black Lives Matter movement has officially entered the mainstream—even shaping the Democratic presidential primary contest. Yet in Missouri, change has been minimal. 

“No wonder people are hopeless, no wonder why people don’t trust government,” said state Senator Maria Chapelle-Nadal, who represents Ferguson. “Government in Missouri is non-responsive.”

In the GOP-controlled statehouse, lawmakers brought forward more than 60 bills this year to reform police practices and the criminal justice system. There were proposals to require police body cameras, rein in the use of lethal force, institute sensitivity training, and create citizen review boards. But by May, when the legislature concluded its business for the year, it had passed just one of these measures: a bill that limits cities’ ability to use minor traffic violations as a source of revenue.

The slow pace of reform in Missouri shows that the national attention Ferguson has brought to policing—and a growing, bipartisan interest in criminal justice reform—aren’t yet enough to overcome political resistance to changing police practices, even at ground zero for the Black Lives Matter movement. “This session was an embarrassment,” said Brendan Roediger, a law professor at St. Louis University who has conducted workshops to educate Ferguson protesters about their legal rights. “It’s a state on the political level that refuses to admit a legacy of racism and oppression. I think people steadfastly refused to admit that Ferguson meant anything.”

Resistance from Republican legislators emerged on the very first day of the session. “We’re not going to have a Ferguson agenda here in the House,”proclaimed then-House Speaker John Diehl in January. Democratic state Rep. Brandon Ellington, head of the legislative black caucus, recalled that the Republican leadership stalled scores of criminal justice bills. By the end of March, more than halfway through the session, only about 40 percent of the Ferguson-related bills had been heard by members, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch estimated.

“There were no hearings, no discussion of those bills on the floor. We had little debate about anything,” said Ellington, who was pushing legislation to make police body cameras mandatory.

It wasn’t entirely for lack of bipartisan interest. Ellington, for instance, found a sympathetic audience in GOP Rep. Galen Higdon, a former deputy sheriff who had used dashboard cameras during his time in law enforcement. “I found quite a bit of usable information on the car cameras, when people made complaints about my officers and their conduct,” said Higdon. He believes it would have made a difference in Ferguson, too. “If the officer would have had the body camera, we would have had a whole lot of questions answered,” he said.

Ferguson police officers are now wearing them. But Higdon doesn’t believe body cameras should be mandatory. And his concerns about privacy prompted him to bring a separate measure forward that would exempt the footage from the state’s open records law, requiring the public to get a court order to view it. Unlike Ellington’s bill, Higdon’s privacy measure passed the House, and included a provision that forbids Missouri from requiring body cameras at all. “The reality is that the makeup of the current legislature is very, very conservative,” said Montague Simmons, chair of the Organization for Black Struggle, a St. Louis activist group.

State Sen. Joe Keaveny, the Democratic minority leader, admits that the statehouse could have done more in the last session, but urges patience. “The use of force bills—quite frankly, they weren’t quite ready. It’s better to do it right,” he said. “You work these things out over a couple of years,” explained Higdon. But it's striking how little has happened in Michael Brown's home state in the year since his death, compared to the sweeping policing and criminal justice reforms enacted in Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois. Even red states like South Carolina passed body camera laws, and Ohio established its first standards for the use of deadly force by police.

“In spite of all the publicity and discussions about policing, you still never got to any meaningful reform about policing, and I don’t think politically we’re quite ready for it,” said Thomas Harvey, executive director of the Arch City Defenders, a non-profit legal advocacy group in St. Louis. 

Activists and civil rights advocates acknowledge that there is some good in the one law that the Missouri statehouse managed to pass. The law aims to crack down on abusive law enforcement practices that use the area's municipal courts to squeeze revenue out of residents for low-level traffic offenses, fueling needless arrests and overly aggressive policing. It’s an issue that the Department of Justice highlighted in its own investigation of Ferguson, pointing out that the town's municipal court issued more than 9,000 warrants in 2013, largely for minor offenses. “There had been the breakdown of trust between people and their government, the people and their courts,” said state Senator Eric Schmitt, who sponsored the legislation.

The new law caps the amount of revenue that a city is allowed to draw from traffic offenses at 20 percent, with the threat of disincorporation for municipalities that fail to comply. It also eliminates failure-to-appear charges for missing court dates, gets rid of automatic license suspension for failure to pay fines, and limits the jail time on arrest. That could reduce predatory practices that have created modern-day debtor’s prisons. “It’s going to make a big difference for how often people are pulled over and stopped, which is a big deal,” said Sarah Rossi, director of policy and advocacy for the ACLU of Missouri.

Municipal court reform was able to pass the Republican-led statehouse because it was also a case for smaller, less intrusive government. It attracted the support of local Tea Party leaders and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity. And focusing on traffic violations made it more broadly relatable—no one likes a speed trap.

But the law will only do so much. Since the changes only apply to traffic violations, police may simply shift their focus to other low-level offenses instead—“not for traffic, but for how tall their lawn is,” Rossi explained. And the limitations have frustrated those who were hoping for more. “It was an instance of interest convergence as long as things weren’t talked about in terms of the truth—in terms of race, in terms of racial profiling,” said Roediger.

Chappelle-Nadal, who supported the municipal court law, similarly pointed to what it fails to accomplish. “It doesn’t get to the issue of why Michael Brown died,” she said. “That’s what was meaningful to the people I represent—they are being killed every day.”

Ellington feels more hopeful about the next legislative session. The new speaker of the House, Todd Richardson, has promised to work with the black caucus more closely, Ellington said. And body camera laws have gained broad acceptance, even in red states like Texas and South Carolina, raising the possibility that a renewed push for cameras in Missouri could find success. But for meaningful reform to come to Missouri, the politics—and politicians—may have to change first. “A lot of people elected in the Senate came to my district during the [Ferguson] protests and talked with me and my constituents,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “What really happened in the end is that no one really cared.”

This article has been updated.