Vet Ferguson bills with care in Missouri legislature

Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who represents Ferguson, is proposing changes.
Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who represents Ferguson, is proposing changes. The Associated Press

Missouri lawmakers have responded to the police shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson with a host of bills on matters such as police use of deadly force and overuse of traffic tickets by some cities.

The spate of legislation filed in advance of the 2015 session’s Jan. 7 start could lead to thoughtful discussions. But it is important that the General Assembly vet the bills carefully.

Two Democratic senators from the St. Louis area, Maria Chappelle-Nadal and Jamilah Nasheed, have filed legislation aimed at limiting the circumstances under which a police officer can use deadly force. Nasheed’s bill would require officers to use other options first, such as a taser, and issue a warning before firing a shot. It also would cause officers to be suspended without pay pending an investigation if they fired at a suspect more than 20 feet away.

Lawmakers and the public need to hear from police about these proposals. Good police departments heed to standards and best practices developed and constantly re-evaluated by law enforcement professionals. State legislators should tap that expertise before setting their own rules.

The same goes for bills that call for the appointment of a special prosecutor in all officer-involved shootings. Lawmakers need to hear from prosecutors about the wisdom of that idea.

Several legislators, including Rep. Brandon Ellington, a Democrat from Kansas City, have introduced bills requiring all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras. We think police departments should be moving toward that practice. But the legislature would need to be clear about where the money will come from.

Other bills deal with revelations that Ferguson and some other small cities in Missouri rely too heavily on revenue from traffic tickets and court fees to fund their operations. Excessive enforcement poisons relations between police and citizens and creates undue hardships for low-income people, who struggle with fines and outstanding warrants.

But blanket limits, such as the provision in a bill by Sen. Eric Schmitt, a Republican from Glendale, to limit fine and fee revenues to 10 percent of a city’s budget, may be too simplistic. In some cases, like a small city next to a speed-prone highway, vigorous enforcement is needed to slow drivers down and protect the public.

It’s clear that Ferguson will play a major role in the legislative session. That’s good, as long as lawmakers go into it with open minds.