FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — Delrish Moss experienced the worst of policing growing up in inner-city Miami. Those close to him say that makes him the ideal person to bring the best of it to Ferguson, Missouri, where African-American mistrust of police dates long before the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.
Moss, a 51-year-old black man, was picked this week to lead the police force in the St. Louis suburb thrown into turmoil after white officer Darren Wilson shot Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, on Aug. 9, 2014.
Although Moss watched from afar the protests and riots that followed Brown's death, he said the pain felt familiar. He was still a child growing up in Miami's tough inner-city Overtown neighborhood when a friend was killed by police. Moss soon had his own unwarranted encounters with officers.
At around age 14, an officer suddenly pushed him against a wall, frisked him and searched through his belongings before leaving, offering no explanation. About a year later, another officer pulled up and used a racial slur. He was a teenager when rioting broke out in 1980 after white police officers fatally beat a black motorcyclist.
Rather than turn against police, Moss decided to try to make improvements from within. He was hired as a Miami officer in 1984, motivated, he said, to "give my community the police service I thought we deserved and treat people much better than I had been treated."
"That's what fuels my love for law enforcement," Moss told The Associated Press.
He faces a daunting task in Ferguson.
A St. Louis County grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice declined to indict Wilson, who resigned in November 2014. But the Justice Department issued a critical report of Ferguson in March 2015, citing racial bias in Ferguson's criminal justice system. The Ferguson City Council last month agreed to a settlement with the Justice Department calling for police and court reforms.
Many black residents told Justice Department investigators stories of being pulled over for no reason, or being victims of police threats or brutality. About two-thirds of the around 20,000 Ferguson residents are black, but the police force has historically been mostly white. Currently, eight of 46 officers are black.
Miami's current and former police chiefs say Moss will take to Ferguson the life experiences that made him successful in South Florida.
"He took an opportunity to improve things for his own community, not just for his personal benefit but to improve the community where he grew up in," Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes said. "That kind of skill set is not taught in a police academy, that's something you bring with you."
Moss rose through the ranks working in different departments, including homicide. He was named public information officer 20 years ago. Former Police Chief Manuel Orosa promoted Moss to the position of major in 2011.
Orosa said Moss was instrumental in establishing an improved relationship between Miami's African-American communities and the police department after a rash of police shootings of unarmed black men and teenagers under the previous chief. Moss established monthly breakfast meetings with influential black pastors that went from tense encounters initially to friendly and productive get-togethers, Orosa said.
"He was able to bring our police department closer to certain segments of the community that had been alienated," Orosa said.
Ferguson, as part of the agreement with the Justice Department, is embracing a community-oriented policing model that calls for officers to be involved in neighborhood groups and the community, rather than simply reacting to crime. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said Moss will be vital in implementing that model.
"What really stands out in Mr. Moss' background is his ability to deal with the public," Knowles said. "We need somebody at the top with the experience and skill to lead our department in doing that."
Associated Press writer Maria Fisher in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.