JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) – The fatal police shooting of Michael Brown has prompted a flurry of legislation in his home state, where politicians are proposing to curb police tactics, prosecutorial powers and even traffic fines in an attempt to address an array of societal concerns that have fueled nationwide protests.
When Missouri lawmakers convene Wednesday for their annual session, nearly five months will have passed since now-former Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson, who is White, shot the unarmed Black 18-year-old after a scuffle in a suburban St. Louis street.
Yet that event – and the sometimes violent protests that followed – figure to demand attention from state lawmakers, who also will be considering how to balance the state’s budget while repairing its aging roads, bridges and buildings.
“We’ve got a new set of issues that I think are more pressing now after everything that’s happened in Ferguson,” incoming House Majority Leader Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said. “I anticipate a lot of conversation about that.”
A special legislative committee will be investigating Gov. Jay Nixon’s use of the National Guard – or lack thereof in Ferguson – on the night the St. Louis County prosecutor announced a grand jury had decided not to indict Wilson, and angry crowds burned and looted businesses.
Lawmakers already have filed about three dozen bills stemming from the shooting. Some would address when police officers can use deadly force and whether special prosecutors must be appointed when police kill people. Others would require police to wear video cameras, a response to the fact there are no videos of what transpired between Wilson and Brown.
Still other proposals are rooted in the underlying racial tensions between residents of the predominantly black suburb and its overwhelmingly white police force. Those bills would require cultural diversity training for police, encourage efforts that foster a “harmonious rapport” between police and youth and limit the money that cities can reap from traffic fines and court costs – all in an attempt to ease what some black residents perceive as harassment by law enforcement officers.
Of all those proposals, the revisions to Missouri’s municipal fines might stand the greatest chance of passing in the Republican-led Legislature, in part because they tie into the GOP’s quest to cut taxes and limit government. Some protesters have complained that fines for relatively minor traffic violations can balloon into arrest warrants and jail time for low-income residents.
“Part of the key, I think, is to encourage more community policing, and not have the only experience with police in some of these communities being getting pulled over for tickets and arrested for warrants on old tickets,” House Speaker-nominee John Diehl, a Republican from suburban St. Louis, said. “Cities that exist solely for the purpose of collecting traffic fines are probably going to have a rough session.”
Fourteen St. Louis suburbs, all predominantly black, depend on traffic-court fees and fines as their largest source of revenue, eclipsing sales and property taxes, according to a recent study.
Yet, if lawmakers focus solely on city governance or poverty issues, they are missing the point, said Democratic Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, whose district includes Ferguson and who participated in protests.
“It is not municipal fines that caused Michael Brown to be shot – that’s just an element of injustice, of institutional racism that happened,” Chappelle-Nadal said.
She is sponsoring legislation that would narrow the instances in which police can use deadly force and also require the state attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor – in place of the locally elected prosecuting attorney – to investigate deaths or injuries caused by police. Many Ferguson residents had wanted St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, whose father was an officer killed in the line of duty, removed from Brown’s case.
Chappelle-Nadal is one of several lawmakers proposing to require uniformed police officers to wear video cameras. To defray costs and avoid violating a state constitutional ban on unfunded mandates, Democratic state Rep. Brandon Ellington of Kansas City has proposed that the body cameras be paid for by a one-cent tax on each handgun and ammunition sale.
But that might be a hard sell to a Legislature that just recently expanded firearm rights.
Likewise, attempts to change deadly force laws and limit the powers of grand juries and prosecutors “probably have very, very difficult roads,” Diehl said. The state’s law enforcement associations are generally well-regarded among lawmakers.
Diehl also warned of the potential for “unintended consequences” by placing decisions about charging police in the hands of special prosecutors.
“I think the suggestions are well-intentioned,” he said, “but I think once they get vetted out, I think we’ll see that they create as many problems as they would like to solve.”
Follow David A. Lieb at: https://twitter.com/DavidALieb