FERGUSON, Mo. ― Two years after a police shooting drew national attention to this St. Louis suburb, the Ferguson Police Department is struggling to fill open positions on the force. And an investigation into its latest recruit shows just how difficult that process can be.
In 2014, the year Officer Darren Wilson killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, the Ferguson Police Department had 54 sworn police officers. Now, it’s down to 39 ― six black men, two black women and 27 white men.
The city’s head police dispatcher resigned during a city council meeting in August, saying budgets and staffing constraints led to her decision. She also said the police department was so dangerously understaffed that someone could be hurt as a result. At that same meeting, newly appointed Police Chief Delrish Moss agreed that new hires were needed, but said he wanted to be sure he hired the right candidates.
But the latest police force hire, a white man who was sworn in during a city council meeting on Tuesday night along with a new police commander, city clerk and city attorney, is already drawing the ire of local activists Emily Davis and Keith Rose, who shared a series of tweets from an account bearing the officer’s name.
The tweets discussed a video that went viral in 2015 and showed a McKinney, Texas, police officer chasing teens at a pool party, wrestling a bikini-clad teenage girl to the ground, pointing a gun toward two boys and performing a barrel roll. The officer in the video, Eric Casebolt, resigned immediately after the incident, and White House officials called his actions “detrimental” to police-community relations.
The person who wrote the tweets apparently didn’t see it that way. “[P]olice tell you to comply, you comply!” said one. “[T]his is typical for people not to listen to police.”
The account also contained transphobic comments. One response to a post by Kim Kardashian urging people to follow Caitlyn Jenner on Twitter said, “your whole family is sickening and I can’t believe he won that award,” referring to Jenner’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYS last year. The tweet used the gender pronoun “he” to refer to Jenner, who now identifies as female.
The account, and a Facebook page under the same name, have both since been deleted.
In any other municipality, hiring a police officer wouldn’t make national news. But here, everything officers do is under a microscope, including their social media profiles.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles immediately responded to the activists’ concerns, and asked Rose to leave printouts of the tweets with the city clerk. City spokesman Jeff Small said in an email that the department is working to verify the tweets.
“[A]lthough he was not an officer at the time, the concerns raised by the revelation of the account are now a personnel matter,” Small wrote. “Due to the fact that it is a personnel matter the departmental inquiry cannot be discussed as a matter of law.”
In 2015, the Justice Department concluded that Ferguson’s police officers regularly engaged in unconstitutional policing, targeting the black community to drive up revenue for the city.
“Just as officers reflexively resort to arrest immediately upon noncompliance with their orders, whether lawful or not, they are quick to overreact to challenges and verbal slights,” the department wrote. “These incidents ― sometimes called ‘contempt of cop’ cases ― are propelled by officers’ belief that arrest is an appropriate response to disrespect.”
Now, a consent decree between the city and the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division requires officers to go through more intensive training than cops in neighboring cities.
St. Louis County, in contrast, has dozens of separate police forces, and many offer higher salaries than Ferguson currently provides.
Despite the city’s apparent struggles with filling open officer positions, the tweets didn’t sit well with locals. Ferguson resident Emily Davis said the city shouldn’t be hiring someone who believes the McKinney police officer handled the situation in an appropriate way.
“The police chief of McKinney, Texas, called that officer’s actions ‘indefensible,’ and do you know who’s defending those actions? … [The officer] who we hired. That’s problematic,” Davis said.
The police chief of McKinney, Texas, called that officer’s actions ‘indefensible,’ and do you know who’s defending those actions? [The officer] who we hired.
Ferguson’s population is more than 67 percent African-American, but it wasn’t until last year that more than one black person served on the city council. All of the new hires sworn in Thursday, other than the new officer, are black.
Apollo Carey, the new city attorney, says he’s looking forward to his new position in Ferguson. He’ll be replacing Stephanie Karr, who was accused of misconduct in the Justice Department report and had long been a target of activists.
“I’m obviously excited and happy to be a part of the team,” Carey said. “I want to be a part of moving things forward.”
I think protesters have grown a little weary. I think residents are exhausted, and I think city government remains unchanged. Adrienne Hawkins, former Ferguson City Council candidate
But days before Tuesday’s council meeting, former Ferguson City Council candidate Adrienne Hawkins told HuffPost she believes “not much has changed” in terms of progress within the city.
“Other than the skin color on faces, what has really changed?” asked Hawkins, who now lives in the neighboring city of Florissant. “I don’t see any progress. I think protesters have grown a little weary. I think residents are exhausted, and I think city government remains unchanged.”
“Tell me, what we have to do to make you care enough to make you hire better officers?” Davis asked. “If burning buildings and worldwide media attention and investigations by the United States government, millions of dollars in budget shortfalls, citizens in the streets mourning the death of a son, and armored vehicles, teargas and rubber bullets don’t do it, what will?”
Ryan J. Reilly contributed reporting.