Six years ago, Ferguson entered into a consent decree which focused almost entirely on the conduct of our city’s police department. Having spent a great deal of money on monitors and manuals and committees, we remain without any immediate hope of escaping from this costly and crippling arrangement. Having observed the conduct of our new chief, Frank McCall, we are not hopeful that his work will help guide us toward compliance, and the relief which compliance brings.
Most recently, having received one of Chief McCall’s undecipherable press releases, we sent him a couple of corrections. The release announced the filing of charges in a homicide on Thursday evening, which occurred in the apartment complex most of us know as Northwinds. Along with the corrections, we requested the name of the alleged perpetrator, to which McCall responded, “His identity will not be released until the family has been given ample time to notify other family members of this tragic event.”
With all due respect to the needs of the family, the releasing of the identity of anyone who is arrested is, as a matter of state law, not at the discretion of the chief. Revised statutes of Missouri, chapter 610.100.2, states that “Each law enforcement agency of this state, of any county, and of any municipality shall maintain records of all incidents reported to the agency, investigations and arrests made by such law enforcement agency. All incident reports and arrest reports shall be open records.” Chief McCall’s refusal to disclose the identity of anyone who is arrested violates this law. Of course, he could disclose, then request that we do not publish it. We would likely have complied with this request. But to refuse is unlawful. At half past three on Friday, we emailed the chief and informed him of his legal obligation to disclose, with copies to the city manager and city attorney. As of this moment, Chief McCall has provided neither the identity of the alleged murderer, nor any other response. But within hours of my request, other media outlets published the name, presumably obtained from the office of the county prosecutor, where laws are more carefully observed.
During last week’s city council meeting, McCall again delivered his trademark obfuscation in response to important questions from council. When asked about the proliferation of mini bikes, which are not street legal, the chief responded with a rambling discussion about how complicated it is to determine whether a vehicle is street legal, implying that it was impossible for the city to act against this epidemic of hazard. Just last night, we are told, a rider of one of these vehicles was seriously injured in a crash on Hereford.
Contrary to what McCall says, state law is very clear: the operator must have a driver’s license, and the vehicle must conform to a detailed set of specifications which are referenced in state law. These mini bikes are off road vehicles which don’t even come close to the standards of a street legal vehicle, and I am confident that if you cruised one of them around Creve Coeur, you would quickly find yourself a pedestrian. But since Chief McCall is unable to determine the piston displacement without disassembling the vehicle, we are treated to the daily hazard of these bikes, which are difficult to see from a car due to not complying with the minimum height standards of the aforementioned law. We hope that it will not take a dead rider, and a traumatized motorist, to get Chief McCall to recognize that these vehicles are dangerous and illegal, and start enforcing the clear requirements of state law in Ferguson.
On a more serious note, our regular readers will recall that there was an officer involved shooting on Tiffin west of Harvey a few months ago. While it was not a Ferguson officer who fired the shot, the initial encounter with the armed subject was with a Ferguson officer, and our officers were involved in the subsequent pursuit. Our city charter and ordinances have very specific requirements for the operation of body cameras, and for the disclosure of video. At the time of the incident, McCall refused to comply with those laws, not even allowing the Civilian Review Board a timely viewing of the video. McCall claimed he was sealing the video because St. Louis County Police, which was leading the investigation, prohibited Ferguson from releasing it. We obtained a written statement from County indicating they had no objection to Ferguson releasing their video, but McCall did not budge. To this day, the only release of Ferguson video was in the public information video provided by St. Louis County.
The consent decree specifies that “In order to continue to promote transparency, foster accountability, and enhance public trust in FPD, the City agrees to make body-worn and in-car camera recordings publicly available to the maximum extent allowable under Missouri law and consistent with individual privacy rights.” Our city charter says that all video, unless there are legal reasons for restricting it, “shall be accessible to the public through the internet, without cost or the requirement of personal identification by the viewer. A request for access to a video which is public record may be satisfied by providing, via email, a link to the particular video which has been requested.” No such access has ever been provided, despite the passage of our strong police video provisions by the voters of this city in 2017, by a 70-30 margin.
Chief McCall has shown no regard for state law, the ordinances of our city, and the provisions of the consent decree, both in his own conduct, and the enforcement of laws to protect our residents. Our city council and city manager have failed to hold him accountable for these failures, and the consequence has been a city that is spiraling out of control, despite the fact that nearly half of our full-time employees work for the police department, and more than 43% of our general fund budget is spent on their behalf. Such a large investment, from a city which fails to meet basic needs due to financial constraints, and in which yet another tax increase is about to be requested, ought to produce better results. Excellence, or failure, starts at the top. Can Ferguson do better?