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Ferguson panel calls for reforms to address racial inequality

Commission formed after police shooting death of Michael Brown proposes consolidation of courts, police departments

A reform panel formed after the Ferguson police shooting of Michael Brown is pushing for the consolidation of police departments and municipal courts in the St. Louis area, and decreasing the use of police force.

But local activists and politicians say they've heard reform proposals before and are skeptical that the state's leaders will have the political will to implement any of the proposals.

The Ferguson Commission, a 16-member panel appointed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon in November, released a copy of its 198-page report online on Monday. Nixon and members of the commission are scheduled to discuss details of the report at an afternoon news conference.

The report acknowledges that the commission has no power to enact any of the proposals, but Nixon has said the commission has the full support of his office.

“The law says all citizens are equal,” the report's introduction states. “But the data says not everyone is treated that way.”

The events in Ferguson raised concerns about police departments and municipal courts in that north St. Louis County town, but also elsewhere in the region. The departments and courts have been accused of targeting minorities to raise revenue, leading to the mistrust that was a key component of the unrest following Brown's death.

Brown, 18, who was black and unarmed, was killed by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson during a confrontation in August 2014. A St. Louis County grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice declined to prosecute Wilson, who is white, but the shooting spurred a national Black Lives Matter movement and led to protests and rioting in and around Ferguson.

The report said the panel heard from many black residents of the St. Louis region “who do not feel heard or respected when they interact with the police or the courts. They do not feel that they are treated in an unbiased way.”

Relations with police were strained in parts of the St. Louis region before the shooting, partly because of excessive force, the report said.

“The regular use of force has led many citizens to view the police as an occupying force in their neighborhoods, damaging community trust, and making community safety even more difficult,” the report said.

It suggested new use-of-force policies, officer training and a change in department culture. It also recommended establishment of a statewide database of use-of-force incidents and statistics. While it would not identify officers involved, the database would be publicly available, with all police departments compelled to provide information.

The report notes that St. Louis County has 81 municipal courts and 60 municipal police departments.

“Our findings are that this fragmentation of courts and police departments is not only costly and a grossly inefficient use of taxpayer resources, but more importantly presents as an impediment to justice for many of our region's citizens,” the report said.

The commission also recommended changes in several other areas to address social and economic divisions highlighted since the shooting. It suggested developing a statewide plan to deal with mass demonstrations that focuses on preserving life and recommended establishing school-based healing centers to address behavioral and health issues.

Yet local activists and lawmakers were wary of the report and expressed skepticism that the recommendations would ever be carried out.

Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman who was active in the protest movement following Brown’s death, said the report doesn’t contribute any new ideas that hadn't already been proposed. “I literally have a shelf full of reports,” French told Al Jazeera. “I’ll add that one to the shelf.”

Missouri state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a Democrat, commended the commission members for taking the time to create the report but she doubted whether Republican state lawmakers would approve funding for the reforms that would require spending. “We don’t want to have recommendations like we’ve seen in the past, but when the time comes [to implement them], they are put on the shelf,” she said.

And Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, also a Democrat, said she thought Gov. Nixon lacked the political will to pass anything it suggested into law.

“I hope that this was not an effort by the governor to distract the negative media attention that he was getting,” Chappelle-Nadal told Al Jazeera. “There are too many people who are going to look at this report, they are going to talk about this report for about a week — maybe two weeks — and we are going to hear crickets.”

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press, with additional reporting by Marisa Taylor

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