Ferguson’s 'Debtors Prison’ Racket Has Been Reined In. Now Its Police Force May Be Falling Apart.

Former Ferguson police dispatcher says someone will get hurt if city doesn't end its hiring freeze.

ST. LOUIS ― The head of Ferguson’s police dispatch tendered her resignation in a turbulent city council meeting this week, telling city officials that budgeting and staffing constraints have made it impossible to do her job.

Shannon Dandridge, who worked for dispatch for 13 years, cried as she read from a letter she had submitted at the time of her Aug. 10 departure. She said that her office is understaffed and undertrained. Dispatchers aren’t getting breaks, which is leading to fatigue and creating a potentially dangerous situation, she added.

“Mistakes are going to happen, someone is going to get hurt, whether a citizen or officer,” she said. “I don’t feel at this point we can properly staff the dispatch center to keep the community and officers safe. Something needs to be done immediately. After over 26 years working in law enforcement I’ve never seen such a disconnect between a city and its police department.”

Dandridge said budget cuts have decimated staff, reducing her office from seven full-time dispatchers and 10 part-time dispatchers to five full-time dispatchers and an “unlimited” amount of part-timers ― who need training and don’t have the benefits of a full position.

Ferguson employees say what’s happening in the dispatch office is indicative of budget and hiring problems across the police force. Shortly after the August 2014 police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer, the U.S. Department of Justice began an investigation into the Ferguson police that exposed numerous faults, including that it targeted residents ― mostly black ― with tickets and other municipal fines to increase revenue for the city. “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices,” the report said, “are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.”

Several officials resigned in the wake of the report, including the police chief, city manager, city prosecutor, city clerks, municipal judge and police officers. In a step toward reform, city officials reached an agreement with the Justice Department that, among other things, requires the city to reform its municipal enforcement practices. But the police force has been decimated in the meantime, due to the resignation of numerous staff and budget cuts resulting from an inability to fill the gap in revenue the city used to bring in from all those municipal fines.

When the DOJ investigation began, there were 54 officers on the force. By May 2015, that number was down to 43, police spokesman Jeff Small told The St. Louis American. They were down to 41 officers as of mid-July, Small told The Huffington Post this week, which was the most recent tally of officers the city could provide. Former city workers said they think the number is actually more like 36 officers at this point.

HuffPost asked a Ferguson spokesperson for updated figures on how many officers are currently on staff, and about why they have lost so many officers. The spokesman pointed to an op-ed from the police chief that was addressed to the community. “Although we are working with laser focus on the future, the responsibilities of the [Ferguson Police Department] to keep the public safe have greatly expanded,” wrote Moss. “The heavy workload comes amid budgetary constraints and high levels of attrition leaving fewer police officers on our streets. The situation is a top priority being addressed between the city manager and council members.

Moss wrote that the police department “is aggressively seeking grants and other funding opportunities to ease the budget shortages,” and is “working hard to recruit a diverse group of police officers.”

That doesn’t seem to be happening fast enough for some city workers. Dandridge and other former employees told council members that they stayed with the force through the months of protest and unrest following Brown’s death. But they have grown increasingly frustrated with slow hiring and a lack of communication from city officials. “We hung in there. My husband went through everything that everyone else has gone through the past few years. It was very challenging,” the wife of one former Ferguson police officer told the council. “I can’t give you a whole list of reasons why he left. I think some of them should be obvious, but I will share with you that the lack of communication was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Ferguson was already dealing with a $2.9 million deficit. And now it can no longer rely on collecting municipal fees from its citizens ― which brought in $2.5 million in revenue for the city in 2013 ― under the agreement with the DOJ. The city is also on the hook for a monitor, to make sure officials are implementing changes to the police department consistent with the DOJ agreement, which is going to cost up to $350,000 per year. The city will also likely face significant legal costs in connections with several ongoing lawsuits (though it is possible that those costs will be covered by insurance). Meanwhile, the city has spent tens of thousands of dollars on prosecuting protesters.

City officials have tried to fill the gap with tax increases. Voters approved a sales tax increase in April, which is expected to bring in $800,000 per year - but they rejected a property tax increase. Voters also approved an increase in business taxes earlier this month, though that is only expected to bring in another $700,000 annually.

Others present at Tuesday’s meeting backed up Dandridge’s assertion that the budget cuts are having a negative impact on the police force. David Sussman, who worked for two years as a Ferguson dispatcher, said at the meeting that he was forced out of his position in June. “I was removed from full-time staff with benefits and offered part-time status with no benefits and very few hours,” said Sussman, who was paid $15.32 an hour. “I had to refuse it.”

Sussman said that though technically he left his job voluntarily, in reality he was given no choice. “I did not resign. You terminated my employment,” Sussman said. “To lose as many personnel that we did is a shame.”

Dandridge told council members that she had requested additional hires almost a year ago, but the city manager and financial director told her multiple times that there was a hiring freeze for dispatchers. She also said that her requests to meet with city manager Carl Seawood about the situation had been denied. And she said she had met with Ferguson’s financial director, Jeffrey Blume, last December, but her concerns were ignored.

Dandridge recalled a recent incident where someone called 911 about an overturned van but gave the wrong address; because there was only one dispatcher on duty, several other calls came in but were not answered. Officers, ambulance and fire were sent to the wrong location as a result.

Seawood admitted at the council meeting that communication between the city and its employees has been strained and is in need of improvement. He said that hiring additional staff has been an issue. “We want to make sure we are hiring the right people. So our process is more tedious,” Seawood said. “We’re making sure that the people who are hired are bringing not just the skillset, but the right personality for our community.”

Police Chief Delrish Moss, who was hired in May, echoed Seawood. “I understand the need to hire police officers, we are short. I understand the need to hire dispatchers, we are short,” Moss said. “But what keeps police chiefs up at night is the fact that you hired the wrong person.”

Moss comes to Ferguson from the Miami police department, which also experienced civil unrest in the 1980s and ‘90s, as well as the loss of much of its police force at the time. Moss said he is working on hiring new officers, but the job market is competitive with neighboring departments, which are also recruiting new hires.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles, who once worked alongside Dandridge as a police dispatcher, worried that her negative depiction of the city’s situation would “freak everybody out and make them want to leave.”

Dandridge and some of her supporters have accused Knowles of lying to the media about having 44 officers on the police force, saying there are in fact only 36. Dandridge and others at the meeting accused city officials of using the city’s need for police and fire department personnel as a way to get voters to back the tax increases, but have not actually followed through with funding and hiring those officers.

Prior to the election, Knowles told HuffPost during a sit-down interview it was important for the tax increases to pass in order to comply with the consent decree costs so that there wouldn’t be too many cuts to the police department.

“Rumor has it the city used the shortage of the officers and closing fire house 2 as the sympathy getter to get the votes needed to pass the tax.” Dandridge wrote in her exit interview.

“If you’re worried about how many people we have, you should be worried about how many people are here, instead of getting everybody scared and running off,” Knowles said at the meeting. Knowles did not deny that he gave an inaccurate number of officers, but he also did not explain why he gave the wrong number, instead he told people at the meeting that there needs to be more officers. He told meeting attendees that although the city is authorized to have 44 officers, they didn’t have 44 at the time he announced it.

“We need to be authorized to hire more than that,” Knowles said.

The city hired a consultant to complete a staffing study on the department and make the necessary recommendations on how many people should work in each department. The consultant recommended that the city have 52 officers on the force, including a minimum of 11 full-time and four part-time dispatchers, to comply with the consent decree, according to Dandridge who said she spent approximately 120 hours working with the consultant.

Dandridge said the city can’t continue operating in its current state: “They’re getting to the point where they’re not going to be able to sustain themselves if they don’t get some employees hired.”

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