By Niraj Chokshia
The Missouri legislature ended its session Friday night having passed virtually none of the reforms activists sought in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown.
Activists had been tracking more than 100 bills related to criminal justice and policing, but just one of substance had made its way out of the legislature, they say.
“This was such an opportunity for the Missouri legislature to step up and do the right thing. The people of the state called on our lawmakers to fix this broken system,” said Denise Lieberman a senior attorney for the Advancement Project, a civil rights group, and co-chair of the Don’t Shoot Coalition, a group formed to address policy reform after Brown’s shooting.
When the session began in early January, advocates had high hopes for, at the very least, a fruitful discussion. They were encouraged, they said, by word from the legislative black caucus that legislative leadership and the governor were supportive of their efforts. But, in the end, several expressed frustration with the course the legislature took.
“To now, at this point, see every piece of legislation that they put forward get stifled, get choked out, it’s disheartening,” said Montague Simmons, chairman and executive director of the Organization for Black Struggle, a black political empowerment organization.
The scores of bills — introduced mostly by the legislature’s few Democrats — offered a menu of reforms. They would have developed standards for eyewitness identification, required body cameras, restricted police from racial profiling, required diversity and sensitivity training, and modified state rules governing the use of lethal force, something Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon threw his support behind in his State of the State address.
The legislature did pass one bill advocates had been calling for, which was aimed at limiting municipal reliance on fines for revenue, a practice highlighted in a scathing Justice Department report on Ferguson released earlier this year. The bill lowers the cap on how much revenue a municipality can generate from traffic tickets from 30 percent to 20 percent statewide and to 12.5 percent in St. Louis County, which is plagued by excessive traffic violations and is home to Ferguson. The bill also bans courts from throwing individuals in jail over minor traffic offenses.
Despite their hopes, advocates were not encouraged by legislative leadership early in the session.
“We’re not going to have a ‘Ferguson agenda’ here in the House,” House Speaker John Diehl (R) said at his opening day news conference on Jan. 7. “I think that the Senate has indicated the same thing. I view the situation of Ferguson as really a reflection of decades of bad government policy,” he said, adding that the chamber would look at issues related to economics, educational opportunities, and the role and function of government.
“Those men and women who serve the public by defending our lives and property—they shouldn’t be scapegoats for what are bad public policies,” he said. Diehl resigned Thursday afternoon after the Kansas City Star uncovered what it described as “sexually suggestive texts” with a 19-year-old intern.
Two police-related bills proceeded in a meaningful way, said Sarah Rossi, director of advocacy and policy at the ACLU of Missouri. But neither are ones she would have supported. One, which passed the House, would have banned state-mandated body cameras and allowed law enforcement agencies to deny access to mobile video recordings. Another, which saw late action Friday butstill went nowhere, would have limited officers’ use of deadly force.
Though their efforts may have largely failed this session, proponents of reform said they plan to continue their fight.
“Long-term policy change takes time,” Lieberman said. Advocates plan to use the recommendations of a state commission on Ferguson, expected to wrap up its work in the coming months, to engage lawmakers over the summer and work with them on pre-filing bills for the next session.