Ferguson mayor on protests: 'I wasn’t there'

Ferguson's mayor says he stands by the former police chief and that he didn’t witness the police response to protests

FERGUSON, Mo. – One year after the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown  by a Ferguson police officer spurred massive protests, residents and city officials say they’re trying to move forward.

As the tiny Midwest city was thrust into the national spotlight, the Department of Justice later found a pattern of unlawful policing that exacerbated racial bias against black residents. In the wake of ongoing protests and the DOJ report, the city manager and police chief resigned.

But Mayor James Knowles insists – even facing a recall effort – he's staying put.

In an interview with America Tonight, Knowles shared his candid views on how he sees the city evolving, why he's not sweating the recall effort and how he stayed away from last year's protests and riots during the height of the unrest.

Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lori Jane Gliha: We've talked about the police chief and the city manager resigning. You are kind of the last man standing from where we were almost a year ago. Why do you think that is?

Mayor James Knowles: Citizens have the right and ability to put me in office. Five times over the past decade I've been elected or re-elected. Somebody has to be here to make sure that the will of the people happens. If they want to remove me from office, they have an opportunity, but there can't be total chaos or anarchy in the city.

There have been at least two efforts to recall you. Have you thought about resigning as a result of these recall efforts?

No. I would let it play out. If that was the will of the people, then it is. But to step down just because of the threat is still premature.

People who have signed a recall petition against me, I would be happy to meet with them, just like I meet with anybody else There's a lot of people who support me, and there's a lot of people who want me there.

At any time since Aug. 9, did it cross your mind that you might consider resigning?

Oh sure. If you're here for the good of people would you leaving be better for the people? I've weighed that many times. But I've continued to be supported and as long as I'm going to continue to get that from people all over the country that have reached out, and especially people in my community, then I'm going to continue in this job.

Do you think the police reaction to protesters [in the immediate aftermath of the death of Michael Brown] was appropriate?

I wasn't there. And I sure don't trust what I watch on TV presented to me by the media.

Where all this happened, I grew up two blocks away. I rode my bike to that QT [the burned-out gas station] every weekend. The way that it was portrayed on TV made it look like the Gaza Strip, and we all know that it was one and a half blocks of street and I still have people that come here from all over the world and I show them around and they are just astounded by what a beautiful community that they see as opposed to what they watched on TV. So, I don't know. I mean I wasn't there.

You, as the mayor of the city, you never set foot outside during this...

I didn't go down in the middle of tear gas and, you know, grenades going off, the flash bangs going off.

Do you think that was appropriate reaction? As you know, I was there. There was tear gas, there were flash bangs, there was...

But also, but also law enforcement has said on many occasions where there was gunfire that they were under fire, again these are things that I mean...

So yes or no.

Well, let me say this. This is the essence of somebody who makes decisions in public policy. You should not make decisions, when you don't have all the facts or all the information. I know that doesn't play well with the media, but I mean the truth be told is I don't know. I'm not going to sit there and watch something and give you my reaction and my feeling when all I'm doing is seeing a visual that's completely out of context – out of context of the people that were there. People on both sides have given different viewpoints of how they've perceived what was going on. I wasn't there, and until I find out more information I'm not going to sit here and give you an answer.

Mayor James Knowles
America Tonight

When I interviewed you last year, I asked whether you thought this city could move forward with the previous police chief still in place and you said you thought it could. Do you still think that had the chief stayed, things could move forward?

One of the things that's frustrating is that throughout all of this we've had people say, "If [Officer] Darren Wilson resigns, we'll be happy." "If the chief resigns we'll be happy." "If the city manager resigns we'll be happy." It's always one more.

At some point, we have to have people here who are going to make the change happen if we're going to do things. The former chief engaged protesters from day one, walked out into the crowds of protesters, talked to people, invited them into his office. He truly had the heart to institute some of the changes that we've been talking about. In the end he felt that he was going to be a sticking point that groups of that protesters were adamantly against him, just were not going to let us move forward. He felt like he needed to step down. Unfortunately, those groups continue to ask for more and more people to step down. Without staff in both our police department and City Hall, it's made making changes more difficult.

It's been made clear that much of the community did not have a lot of trust in the police department and city leaders. Do you think that trust has been restored?

I think there's absolutely a segment of the community that did not have a good relationship either with City Hall or the police department. Are there people out there that still have not been gotten to? Absolutely. We've already started making our officers be more engaged in our neighborhood associations and community groups, but then also bridging that further. How do we go beyond those people who show up to neighborhood associations and people who are involved in the city already? How do we go out and get those people who are truly disaffected and bridge that gap? That's an ongoing process and it's going to take some time.

Since the interim chief took his position, how many black officers have been recruited to that department?

I know we've had at least three but I don't know what the total right now. Unfortunately, we also lost some. Some of these protesters who said that they wanted to see more African-American officers targeted and tormented some of our African-American officers to where they left the city. They were made targets and it was very, very brutal, very hostile and we've lost several African-American officers due to that. We've also worked very hard to bring African-American officers into our community.

Why is that so difficult?

Just turn on YouTube. When you see in Ferguson, an African-American Ferguson officer by himself in the middle of a group of people being hurled racist names, being tormented, who wants to come work in that? 

What can be done by the city, and what are you doing as a city to overcome that hurdle?

We're doing outreach to the police academies. We're doing outreach to the high schools here in the community and communities around us …, going to community colleges and colleges. There are other larger departments that have more opportunities for advancement and pay more. We've always lost out recruiting to many of those departments. But if we can build these relationships, we think that we're going to be more successful in the future.

When we first met, you talked about your regrets for saying there was no racial divide initially. Since that time, this DOJ report came out about Ferguson and what was happening, and pointed out specific details saying yes, there is racial bias that's been happening for years at the police department. Do you feel like you may have taken a blind eye to that?

It's important to recognize when you talk about the report saying that African-Americans have a disparate impact, and also recognize again that racial bias is sometimes implicit and not explicit. People oftentimes think of bias and go, "Well, I'm not biased because I don't look at this person and then treat them differently," but at the same time there can be an implicit bias which is one of the things that I think a lot of people have learned about, and how law enforcement and the laws and how things have been done have an implicit bias against people in lower socioeconomic situations or oftentimes against African-Americans.

And so I think that a lot of us have learned a lot about that, especially the past 11 months.

"We have had our booms and busts like many communities," Mayor James Knowles said about efforts to rehabilitate the city after rioting in the past year following Michael Brown's death. "It's going to be a continuous process of rebirth and rebuilding as we improve on our self both physically but then also as a community."
America Tonight

You just said you learned something from this report. Is this something that you didn't necessarily see?

What we focused on is the recommendations that came out of that. There's a lot of things that we could go back and talk about that are either fairly or unfairly characterized in that report, but at the end of the day all that matters to us and to the citizens is how we can do better moving forward. So we've looked at the last 12, 13 pages [starts at page 90] that focus on what are the things that the Department of Justice thinks that we can do better and probably our citizens think we can do better. And most of those things we completely agree on. Instead of going back and rehashing whether or not a statistic was used to characterize something fairly or unfairly or whether or not there is another side to any story, one of the things we focused on was there's clearly an issue, whether perceived or real, and we have to focus on how we bridge that. How do we address those issues and how do we bring this community together and move them forward?

When you say "perceived or real," are you suggesting that what was written in the DOJ report was not real? Clarify what you meant by that.

No. … I mean there's issues that have been talked about in that report that have been adjudicated, that the DOJ characterizes in a manner in which the courts did not characterize that way. There are court cases and incidents that have been adjudicated through, through lawsuits and our department, our officers were found to have no fault. The DOJ doesn't characterize it that way.

Some of the people trying to recall you have suggested that when you came into office that's when all this ticketing happened.

That's a mischaracterization. So perfect example: They talk about that there was a concerted effort. If you look at the numbers, the budget went up a great deal. But why did it go up? It's left out of the report that the city instituted red light cameras. The Department of Justice agrees and admits that red light cameras are great because they're literally and figuratively color blind.

The truth of the matter is, we budgeted an increase in our fines and forfeitures because we expected the red light camera systems to go online. That was characterized as myself, I went out and said, "Well, we're going to just raise the revenues from policing," but that wasn't just from policing. That was from automated policing. It's very much mischaracterized how that was both portrayed in the report and how it had been reported by the media.

Do you think the way that the city was writing tickets, issuing fines for failure to appear, adding additional fines to people from incidents that happened years and years ago, or possibly threatening that those people could go to jail for not being able to pay their fine, do you think that is an appropriate way to gather revenue for the city or to be handling things in the city?

It's not a way to get revenue. That's just part of the administration of justice. It was never meant to be a source of revenue like sales tax or property tax. It is simply a part of the criminal justice system. You do something wrong, no matter how wrong it is, whether it's speeding or stealing or anything else, there is a punishment assessed. That's part of the system in Missouri. Again, this is characterized as if the city of Ferguson is the only one that does any of this. Every municipal court in St. Louis County does this – all 90 cities in St. Louis County.

How would you want Ferguson to be characterized?

I hope as we approach the one year anniversary [of Michael Brown's death], that people will look back and see all of the things that the city does, and has improved upon, especially as it relates to again the things I talked about with courts and policing – things that we in Ferguson are leading the way, not just in the St. Louis region but across the country on. These pictures that people continue to put on TV of outrage and frustration and violence and clashes between protesters and police, these are not the, the scenes that have ever defined the city of Ferguson or St. Louis before Aug. 9, 2014. And they shouldn't in the future.

These pictures that people continue to put on TV of outrage and frustration and violence and clashes between protesters and police, these are not the, the scenes that have ever defined the city of Ferguson or St. Louis before Aug. 9, 2014. And they shouldn't in the future.

Mayor James Knowles

Looking at Ferguson right now, do you think there are systemic problems currently when it comes to racial bias, and do you think there's a racial divide right now?

We wouldn't be having this conversation all across the country if there weren't systemic issues that need to be worked on, from access to health care, to access to educational opportunities, to economic opportunities. I've said from the beginning – and at times I've been criticized for it – but you look at many of these disparities start at the socioeconomic level. They start at access to educational activities and the lack thereof, the access to economic opportunities. And a lot of that falls along racial lines, at least in the St. Louis region and I hear that that's the way of many places across the country.

How much farther do you think Ferguson needs to go? Do you think this community will ever fully heal?

This community's been here over 120 years. We have had our booms and busts like many communities. Most of the homes in this community, the newest ones are 40 years old, some of the oldest ones are 140 years old. But at the same time it's going to be a long time. It's going to be a continuous process of rebirth and rebuilding as we improve on our self both physically but then also as a community. The community has been growing and changing for many decades. When I went to school here, the community was predominantly white but the school-age children was growing more and more African-American by the time I graduated high school. I graduated from this high school that was about 50-50, I think it had just tipped the scales to be predominantly African-American.

As we continue to grow and change, we'll hopefully continue to improve ourselves, both as a community and economically.

What power do you have as mayor here in Ferguson?

Executive power? I have none. I have zero executive authority. My power is that I'm the chief elected official of the city. I sign all the documents, so you know I get to practice my penmanship a lot.

And on the City Council, you have a voting voice?

I'm one vote on the council. I preside over the meetings and ceremonially set the agenda.

I have no executive authority. I'm the equivalent of speaker of the house I guess. I make some very limited appointments to some boards and commissions but most of those are even still approved by the council. the council has throughout all of this, allowed me to be the spokesman for the community.

I don't legally hire and fire people. I can't even direct city employees on my own. So I took off from work, almost eight weeks, and became the face of all of this while other people did a lot of the work here. I was the person that got to meet people like you and talk to media and talk to the public and talk to protesters.

A lot of people didn't know who the city manager was or even knew what the city manager form of the government was, they wanted to talk to the mayor and that's therapeutic in many ways. When people say I want to talk to the mayor, well I can't do anything about it. We'll let you talk to the mayor, sure, and I've sat across the table from a lot of people and a lot of groups in meetings and it was very helpful.

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