Members of the state legislature were given many reminders of the events of the past five months in Ferguson during the opening day of the legislative session. In addition to protests in the Senate Chamber and the Capitol rotunda during opening day ceremonies, the leaders of the Republican majorities in both chambers discussed what part they expect issues stemming from the shooting death of Michael Brown, Junior by a Ferguson police officer, would play in the session.
The new House Speaker, John Diehl, Junior (R-Town and Country), in his opening day address, told the chamber, “No one in this room needs any reminder of how things can look when that kind of hope is missing. The national attention our state received last year isn’t what anyone would have wished for, but the story and narrative which is missing about Missouri is the goodness and character of our people. We live here. We see it every day.”
Diehl introduced firefighters from the Metro North, Pattonville, West County and International Association of Fire Fights fire departments that he says had to take cover during gunfire while fighting fires set the night the grand jury decision not to indict the officer that Michael Brown, Junior, was announced.
“Let me make this pledge to all of our public safety personnel and first responders,” said Diehl, “that this body will do its best to get answers to what happened that night, and as Speaker I will do everything in my power to make sure it does not happen again.”
Asked about the more than three dozen bills that have been filed stemming from Ferguson, to do things such as require body cameras for all police officers, eliminate the grand jury process, and require special prosecutors in all officer-involved shootings, Diehl said his caucus’ members would be selective in the issues they pursue.
“We’re not going to have a Ferguson agenda here in the House. I think the Senate has indicated the same thing,” Diehl said.
“I view the situation of Ferguson as really a reflection of decades of bad government policy, whether it be in the entitlement area, failed education systems, and lack of economic opportunity, so to the extent that there’s an interest in fixing some of the fundamental building blocks that have led to the deterioration of society in certain areas of our state I think we’ll be open to that,” said Diehl, but on the subject of reforms impacting law enforcement he added, “I think we have to be very, very careful when we talk about these issues that we separate failed government policies from 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.”
Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey (R-St. Charles) spent a significant portion of his opening day address talking about reforming municipal courts, which is seen as a social justice issue that has added to unrest and mistrust in Ferguson and the rest of the St. Louis region.
He said the 81 municipalities in the region that have their own court systems, “are home to 11-percent of Missouri’s population but account for a troubling 34-percent of the state’s municipal court fines and fees.”
“This perverse scheme of taxation by citation,” Dempsey continued, “is an unsustainable trend that stifles our communities, damages the reputation of law enforcement and creates an adversarial relationship with the very citizens they are sworn to protect and serve.”
Senator Eric Schmitt has filed a bill that would reduce the amount a city, town or village can receive from traffic fines and court costs in its annual budget from 30-percent to 10-percent.
Dempsey said the Senate would, “not turn a blind eye to the need for reform on this front,” but then admonished those who turned violent during the protests in the past five months.
“Let me be clear,” Dempsey said, “the criminal acts carried out against local shopkeepers, citizens, and police officers by individuals who have hi-jacked the peaceful protests of concerned citizens have no place in a civil society where all must be subject to the rule of law.”