On June 2, 2020, the citizenry of Ferguson, Mo., did something powerful.
In a citywide gesture of solidarity — an exercise in community empowerment — a hopeful venture to put the city on the path of reconciliation, healing and inclusion — the electorate selected Ella M. Jones to be the St. Louis suburb’s first Black mayor.
The vote came six years after Ferguson was thrust into national infamy for violent protests following the death of Black teenager Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by white police officer Darren Wilson.
The ensuing yearlong unrest was frequently punctuated by rioting and vandalism that resulted in damages exceeding $26 million, or roughly twice Ferguson’s yearly operating budget.
Jones, 65, a pastor of the local African Methodist Episcopal Church, served as a city council member when she decided to throw her hat in the ring to replace Mayor James Knowles III, who was elected in 2011 and prevented by term limits from seeking reelection this year.
Jones had lost to Knowles in 2017 and resolved to reprise her campaign, running on the concept of embracing diversity and resolving racial conflict in the city, despite the headwinds of discrimination and injustice of which she was painfully aware during her 40 years of residence in Ferguson.
She heard the concerns of her fellow citizens who despaired of any meaningful change in the city. “If you’ve been oppressed for so long, it’s hard for you to break out to a new idea,” she said. “When you’ve been governed by fear and people telling you that the city is going to decline because an African American person is going to be in charge, then you tend to listen to the rhetoric and don’t open your mind to new possibilities.”
But Jones is made of sterner stuff and refused to resign herself to the inequities of living in a racially polarized community. “If I see something that needs to be addressed, I will address it.”
She told the New York Times the day after her mayoral election, “My election gives people hope. Everybody is looking for a change; everybody wants to have a better way of life. You don’t want to go four blocks and worry about getting shot. Nobody wants that. It is starting to get better. We are making changes.”
As the city’s chief executive, Jones is overseeing continued implementation of the federal consent decree Ferguson adopted in 2016. The decree, codified by city ordinance, includes the following remediations:
• Hosting small group meetings between police officers and community members.
• Revising the municipal code to clearly define applicable offenses and imposing appropriate penalties.
• Increasing the quality and scope of police department personnel training.
• Ensuring equal protection of the law and preservation of constitutional rights.
• Protecting First Amendment rights.
• Promoting government transparency and encouraging community feedback.
• Determining when force may be used by law enforcement and dictating when reporting, oversight and investigation are required.
• Implementing a Crisis Intervention Team to assist individuals in mental health or substance abuse crisis and promote community solutions to situations involving mental illness.
• Equipping police officers with body or in-car cameras.
• Providing services to ensure officers’ physical and mental well-being.
• Conducting outreach to recruit a highly qualified diverse workforce.
• Reforming the municipal court.
• Providing a more detailed complaint process.
• Ensuring the collection and tracking of data to assess and improve law enforcement practices.
• Selecting an Independent Monitor consisting of a team of individuals highly qualified in policing, civil rights and related areas.
At 21,000 residents, Ferguson is one of the smallest municipalities to enter into a federal consent decree and serves as an example of a community, recently beleaguered by violence and bloodshed, that is turning itself around and laboring toward a new dawn of racial harmony and understanding.
The National League of Cities has published “Responding to Racial Tension in Your City: A Municipal Action Guide,” which provides detailed advice to cities and towns experiencing inchoate crisis along racial lines.
The guide, found at www.nlc.org, advises municipalities to “embed common values in local response to racial tension,” listing five such values:
• Empathy. Municipal leaders must acknowledge that “the community is looking for answers and wants to be heard” and should recognize the pain the victims and participants are experiencing. City officials should express the shared urgency of the present crisis, acknowledge the different life experiences contributing to the racial tension and provide timely information about any investigations.
• Transparency. Leaders should understand the historical context of systemic racism and work to rebuild fractured trust, providing frequent transparent updates to the city’s stakeholders while managing expectations by not overselling solutions.
• Authenticity. The municipality should demonstrate clear responsiveness to its constituents and develop relationships with respected community partners, both citywide and at the neighborhood level.
• Partnership and collaboration. Municipalities should explore ways to make space for intentionally collaborative efforts to actively listen to community and stakeholder input, create authentic opportunities to include citizens in the decision-making process and find solutions.
• Consistency. Municipal leaders can practice consistency in showing up to public forums; communicating frequently; issuing inclusive communitywide messages; signaling acknowledgment of the severity of any tensions; committing to logic, accuracy and fairness; establishing clear roles for the administration’s response team; and clearly articulating expectations and guidelines.
The action guide provides six pages of checklists to assist municipalities in properly responding to racial conflict under the headings of crisis response, communications and stakeholders.
The Community Relations Service of the U.S. Department of Justice starts one step earlier and has made available its guide, “Avoiding Racial Conflict: A Guide for Municipalities,” found at www.justice.gov, to prepare cities and towns before any manifestation of racial unrest occurs.
The guide begins with a discussion of “two volatile community dynamics known to create extraordinary tension and a triggering incident”: perceived disparity of treatment and lack of confidence in redress systems.
“When one or both community dynamics indicate that a high level of tension exists, a volatile atmosphere marked by frustration and anger may develop … When indicators of tension are extremely high, any rancorous encounter between groups and/or with the police has the potential of becoming a triggering incident that can spark disruption.”
Preemptive or prompt remedial action by municipal authorities is the key to averting racial disruption, and the guide offers a host of proactive efforts that can be taken to avoid costly and tragic consequences down the road.
Use of penalties
The guide recommends a carrot-and-stick approach to crafting local legislation. Consequences for violation of — or compliance with — city equal opportunity and protection ordinances may include:
• Imposing fines or penalties.
• Reviewing licenses, privileges and tax-exempt status.
• Providing incentives and awards.
Civil rights ordinance
Elements of a general ordinance outlining a commitment to positive race relations include:
• Each municipal department developing its own policy and program.
• Monetary and disciplinary sanctions against violators.
• Measures to assure positive race relations.
• Performance incentive awards to department heads.
• Public municipal awards ceremonies.
Human relations commission
The municipality can establish or reenergize its human relations commission as the central instrumentality to monitor equal rights, assure conformity with constitutional rights and promote the municipality’s positive goals.
Hate activity ordinance
Hate crimes are defined in federal law as “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity.” Municipalities may model their own ordinance after existing hate crime laws and should develop public service announcements and local information campaigns to notify the public of its passage and provisions.
It is advisable to develop a local coalition of police, educators, clergy, business people and human relations specialists of various ages to counter hate activity. The municipality may also establish a local hotline for reporting such activity.
Fair housing ordinance
The ordinance should mirror the provisions of Title VIII of the 1968 Civil Rights Act so the municipality can receive a “substantial equivalent” determination from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The determination passes the right to adjudicate fair housing complaints from HUD to the municipality.
The ordinance should prohibit discrimination in the marketing, sale, purchase, rental and financing of housing and the provision of brokerage services.
Applicable policies and procedures should be prominently displayed in all relevant governmental offices, and all entities doing business with the municipality should be required to comply with regulations governing:
• Promoting nondiscrimination in the workplace.
• Promulgating and posting equal opportunity policies.
• Requiring all subcontractors to comply with requirements.
Voting rights ordinance
The ordinance should:
• State the city’s commitment to fairness.
• Be prominently posted in all polling locations.
• Require polling places to be located at convenient sites.
• Require efforts to remove language barriers.
• Require voting districts to be consistent with federal laws, particularly during redistricting.
Representation on boards and commissions
All community members should be ensured access to full participation in municipal affairs, including representation on appointed boards and commissions. Any ordinance should require:
• Listing all municipal boards and commissions to which appointments are made.
• An outreach effort seeking to recruit appointments from all racial and ethnic groups.
• Designating a specific municipal official or agency to ensure compliance.
Police department policy
The department’s policies should include a statement of the municipality’s commitment to civil rights and harmonious race relations, criminal and disciplinary sanctions for noncompliance and descriptions of procedures and programs to improve police/minority relations.
Examples of policies and programs include:
• Developing a set of values to inform implementation.
• Updating regulations concerning critical situations leading to police/citizen violence.
• Establishing a racial-bias unit and/or civil rights office.
• Implementing procedures for public accountability.
• Providing civil rights training.
Community partnerships should feature:
• Establishing and maintaining standing advisory police/community relations boards or committees.
• Including all groups in the development of programs and policing activity initiatives.
• Holding regular public accountability sessions with representatives of all racial and ethnic groups.
• Promulgating procedures for relations with municipal departments, civil rights agencies and local civic or social organizations.
The municipality and local school system may not be coterminous, but the municipality should nevertheless pay attention to programs and procedures such as:
• Parent/student councils.
• In-service training for teachers.
• Outreach programs to parents and the community at large.
• Police/school cooperation agreements.
• Agreements or memoranda of understanding addressing hostility surrounding racial diversity; dropout rates, causes and prevention; and health issues.
No department should be left out of the planning. Relevant departments include those administrating public works, assessing, planning, sanitation, licensing, hospitals, real property
Municipalities should be diligent to forestall or ameliorate racial tensions, but should not manufacture problems through exaggeration or panic.
The DOJ guide ends with a caveat:
“Just as local governments must be sensitive to matters that have the potential for racial or ethnic conflict, they must also be wary of creating or encouraging racial or ethnic issues where none exit. Not every multiethnic community is ready to explode, not every dispute between individuals of different races is a racial dispute and not every police incident is a potential riot. “In implementing the suggestions of this guide, local governments should not send the inadvertent message that every issue is a racial issue; rather, they should convey a healthy, positive concern for the well-being of all residents.”