Missouri lawmakers try again with bills to address Ferguson

AP News
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Posted: Dec 29, 2015 7:28 PM

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Some Missouri lawmakers plan to try again in January to overhaul laws regulating police conduct in response to calls for change following the fatal 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

A bill changing Missouri's outdated law on when police can use deadly force to match federal policy will be brought back up in 2016. Mandated body cameras for police, which failed in 2015, also will get another look.

Other bills will seek to establish a civilian review board to investigate shootings involving officers, promote officers' presence in schools to foster positive interactions with youth, and require departments to investigate potentially biased policing if data shows disparities in how officers interact with minorities.

But it's unclear whether any of the bills stand a better chance of passing in 2016 than they did in 2015. Republican legislative leaders didn't cite them among their priorities. House Majority Leader Mike Cierpiot, for example, said he doesn't expect legislation to require body cameras to "get much traction." Speaker Todd Richardson said he doubts there's an appetite for such a bill in the House, but said there's a "good opportunity" to change the use-of-force statute.

Those measures were among more than 60 bills aimed at changing policing policies or the justice system that failed in the 2015 legislative session. Only one bill, a proposal by Sen. Eric Schmitt to limit the powers and revenues of municipal courts, made it into law.

That law, set to take effect in 2016, reduces the amount of revenue that cities can get from fines and court costs for minor traffic violations. Supporters say it is a step toward restoring trust in government and addressing the predatory revenue-generating policing practices detailed in a federal Justice Department report about Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb.

While the measure received bipartisan support, it also left some Democratic lawmakers frustrated that more wasn't done.

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat who was among the Ferguson protesters, said the court-fees measure has "absolutely nothing to do with why Michael Brown is dead."

At issue are differences of opinion between the political parties about how to tackle underlying issues that gained attention after the Ferguson protests.

"Part of the problem within the body is a great deal of disagreement on what is a valid response to it," said Cierpiot, a Lee's Summit Republican. "A lot of Democrats want to make it more difficult for policemen to do their job. A lot of Republicans disagree."

So far it appears only Democrats, for example, have proposed requiring police to wear body cameras.

Democratic St. Louis Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, who also protested in Ferguson, said the community faces a "crisis" and there's a disconnect with law enforcement. She touted her body-camera bill as a potential solution.

"If we want to regain that trust and allow for community and law enforcement to come together like they should, then this is the best way to get it done," Nasheed said.

Republican bills last session would have either banned state requirements that police use body cameras or made recordings closed to the public.

Cierpiot said another bill by Schmitt, a Glendale Republican, to ban traffic ticket quotas might garner interest in 2016.

When legislators convene Jan. 6, it will have been almost a year and a half since 18-year-old Brown, who was black and unarmed, was fatally shot by a white Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, during a confrontation in a street. The Justice Department later cleared Wilson, concluding evidence backed his claim that he shot Brown in self-defense. Wilson resigned from the Ferguson police force.

A separate Justice Department report sharply criticized Ferguson's law enforcement for racial bias and using its courts to generate revenue.

Though Ferguson is no longer in the daily national news, "that spotlight is actually still on us," said the Rev. Starsky Wilson, co-chairman of the Ferguson Commission created by Gov. Jay Nixon to propose policy recommendations in response to underlying issues raised as a result of what occurred in the community. "We would do well to remember that people are still watching Missouri."

Sen. Bob Dixon, who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he sees a "renewed bipartisan effort" to address related issues. The Springfield Republican said he plans to hold a hearing on his version of a bill on deadly force early in the session.

The measure would align Missouri law with a 1985 Supreme Court decision, which says deadly force used against a fleeing suspect is unconstitutional unless the officer has cause to think that person poses a serious threat.