In the wake of a report by the U.S. Justice Department accusing the police department and courts in Ferguson of institutionalized racism, the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus demanded Wednesday that the GOP-led General Assembly take action.
Rep. Brandon Ellington, a Kansas City Democrat and chairman of the Black Caucus, pointed to a handful of bills that he said are languishing in House committees.
Failure to act, Ellington said, will suggest Missouri is “racist and we don’t care.”
“Missouri is sending out a message that we have law enforcement officers that we know abuse so-called minorities and we’re comfortable with it,” he said.
The Black Caucus, joined by several other Democrats, called on House Speaker John Diehl to allow the bills to move forward.
“If the speaker wants anything passed, we’ve seen that it moves swiftly through this body,” Ellington said. “To have legislation sitting in committees shows me he has no desire to pass that legislation at all.”
Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican, said in an email that nearly all the bills related to Ferguson have been referred to committee. Many have had public hearings. As those bills move through the process, “we will weigh their merits with a reasoned approach based on facts, not emotion. Results are accomplished through hard work, not grandstanding.”
He added: “We will not make the men and women in our law enforcement community, or our first responders, the scapegoats for the tragic events that occurred in Ferguson last year.”
The call for legislative action came a day after Ferguson’s city manager and municipal judge resigned and the same day Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson announced he was stepping down later this month.
The Justice Department report, released last week, was the result of months of investigation following the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
In addition to finding there was not enough evidence to charge Wilson in the shooting, the report revealed racist emails sent by police and court officials and accused the city of using its municipal court and police force to raise revenue by disproportionally targeting black residents for arrest and ticketing.
Lawmakers go on spring break in two weeks at the midpoint of the legislative session.
“If you look at our calendar,” Ellington said, “if these bills don’t move soon, they’re going to die.”
The bills are important, said Branden Mims, pastor at the Greater Metropolitan Church of Christ in Kansas City, because while the federal report focused on Ferguson, the problems it uncovered exist all over the state.
“St. Louis is not the only place,” he said. “It’s Missouri-wide.”
A House committee Wednesday afternoon held a hearing on two bills that would limit the amount of a municipality’s revenue that can be generated from traffic fines. The Missouri Senate has already passed its version of the bill.