In an interview with NPR, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon says his state has made changes since protests over the death of Michael Brown made Ferguson the focal point of the world’s media last year.
Nixon said the government has heard the voice of protesters and has taken action.
“It’s been a very important year for the region, not only for that town, but for the entire state of Missouri,” Nixon said. “I mean, bottom line is we’ve listened; we’ve learned. And while, clearly, there’s more work to do, we’re moving in the right direction.”
Nixon talked about how the state had implemented changes in police training designed to teach officers how to prevent encounters with the public from turning violent.
“There’s three areas we’re focused on in police training. One is dealing with tactics, especially in how you can deescalate situations,” Nixon said. “And I think there’s been a lot of good training done around our country.”
Nixon added it was also important to address officers’ stress levels. He said stressed-out police officers operating in high-crime neighborhoods could overreact to encounters with the public.
“These police officers on the front line have had a tremendous amount of stress,” he said. “And so those wear on the family and the individual officers, and we want to make sure that they don’t build up that stress and act out. We think that’s an officer wellness area that could make a difference to make sure that those officers continue to improve their professionalism.”
One of the fallouts of the citywide protests was an investigation by the Department of Justice which revealed the City of Ferguson was violating the civil rights of Black citizens and using fines to help balance the city budget. Since most of the fines were levied on Black residents, this worked out to be a hidden tax mainly paid by Black residents. The DOJ investigation lead to the firing or resignations of several city officials and a municipal judge. The investigation also revealed city employees had made racist comments in emails.
Nixon said state legislators have taken action to stop cities from depending on money generated by fines to fund government operations.
“The legislature responded with a sweeping municipal court reform bill,” he said. “It’s going to cap the amount of revenue that local jurisdictions can use. It’s going to change the way the traffic court violations are dealt with. It’s going to have different judicial procedures, conflict of interest rules.”
Nixon said he hoped the reforms would help municipal courts revert from being revenue-generating organizations to being places “where justice is served.”
NPR host Robert Siegel pointed out that since 30 percent of the Ferguson budget came from fines, the new laws might result in either tax hikes or reduced services. Nixon said the new regulations might lead to some St. Louis municipalities being forced to merge or eliminate some services.
“It’s going to have a fiscal impact,” Nixon admitted. “But St. Louis County is a county in which— specifically has a tremendous number of jurisdictions. Also, you know, a cost is police departments, so consequently, one place where you may see some merging with the larger jurisdictions—either the St. Louis County or some of the other larger municipalities —is in that area, which may also mean resource savings for those local cities.”
Despite the changes that have been announced, the Ferguson unrest damaged Nixon’s rising career. He was once seen as a popular Democratic governor and a challenger to Republican Sen. Roy Blunt or a potential presidential candidate. But his slow response to the Ferguson unrest left his reputation in tatters and he faced calls for his resignation.