FERGUSON • Police Chief Thomas Jackson resigned Wednesday, saying he always wanted to do what’s best for his community and realized that now meant leaving it.
Jackson, whose departure has been a high priority for protesters since the controversial shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, said in an exclusive interview, “This city needs to move forward without any distractions.”
Officials said that when Jackson leaves March 19, Lt. Col. Al Eickhoff will become interim chief until a national search for a replacement is finished. Eickhoff declined to comment. Jackson has been chief for five years.
Patricia Bynes, an activist and Democratic township committeewoman, said she is pleased by Jackson’s departure but “not ready to pop the champagne yet.” She noted, “We don’t need new faces to the same culture, so I’m not ready to jump up and down yet to celebrate his resignation.”
Jackson will receive severance pay of about $96,000, his annual salary, and health insurance for one year, Mayor James Knowles III said at a news conference. Jackson was out of town and did not attend.
The chief is the sixth Ferguson employee to go since a scathing federal Department of Justice report last week accused the city of racist police and court practices it said were focused on generating revenue, not justice.
Knowles said Wednesday that municipal court judge Ronald J. Brockmeyer, police Capt. Rick Henke and Sgt. William Mudd, who all resigned, and municipal court clerk Mary Ann Twitty, who was fired, did not receive severance packages. City Manager John Shaw received a year’s pay, $120,000, plus insurance.
Sam Walker, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and an expert on federal policing interventions, called the slew of Ferguson departures “unprecedented.”
He said in an email that he could not recall any officials resigning or being fired in the wake of a Department of Justice “findings letter,” a precursor to a legally enforceable “consent decree.” About 25 police departments nationally have undergone the process.
“DOJ has no authority to replace local officials, but the powerful and documented report had the effect of causing political change,” Walker said. “This is a good thing. Facts have power.”
Knowles has disputed some of the data in the federal report, saying it’s “not proof” of widespread abuses. He noted that much of the report was based on anecdotal evidence.
Despite some calls for handing law enforcement over to another agency, Knowles said city leaders remain “committed” to keeping their police department. He said that was also part of Jackson’s “thought process” in resigning.
The mayor described Jackson as an “honorable man” and said, “It’s hard for us to have him leave ...”
Vanita Gupta, an acting assistant attorney general, issued a statement that said the Civil Rights Division “will continue to work with Ferguson Police and city leadership, regardless of whomever is in those positions, to reach a court enforceable agreement that will address their unconstitutional practices in a comprehensive manner.”
Justice Department and city leaders will work on collaborative solutions, with the threat of a federal civil lawsuit if they fail.
Jackson has been under heavy pressure to go since shortly after a white officer, Darren Wilson, shot Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, in a street confrontation. A state grand jury declined to indict Wilson, and the Justice Department separately concluded the officer was under attack and justified to shoot.
As long ago as September, some news organizations were reporting that Jackson’s resignation was imminent.
About 15 protesters — and about half that many Wilson supporters — gathered outside Knowles’ news conference Wednesday.
Pastor Robert White, 40, of the Peace of Mind Church of Happiness in St. Louis, said, “Jackson is a great man, and I don’t believe he’s racist.” But, White said, “... just like any head coach or leader of an industry, we expect change at the top.”
Twitty, Henke and Mudd had been connected to racist emails discovered in the Justice Department investigation. Both the police officers had more than 30 years on the force; Mudd had won a Medal of Valor for helping take down a killer in a bloody courthouse shooting in Clayton in 1992. He was most recently Wilson’s supervisor.
In an interview Wednesday, Jackson declined to discuss specifics of the federal report, which heavily criticized him for a role in using the police force to generate revenue. It quoted emails in which he lobbied to switch to 12-hour shifts to help increase traffic enforcement and said such schedules diminish community policing efforts.
The report cited unnamed Ferguson police officers who expressed concerns about an emphasis on ticket-writing. It also criticized inadequate accountability for use-of-force incidents and pedestrian checks; use of dogs only against black suspects; and holding people in jail beyond 72 hours.
Jackson became Ferguson chief in March 2010, after retiring from 31 years with the St. Louis County police. There, he had been a helicopter pilot and member of the tactical team, where he was once supervisor of Jon Belmar, now county police chief. Jackson said he is undecided on what to do next.
He hired Eickhoff as his second-in-command just five days before Brown was shot. Eickhoff also is a retired county officer, who came to Ferguson from the Creve Coeur police. In 1990, Eickhoff and Jackson won a Medal of Valor together for disarming a suicidal man.
Jackson’s resignation revived the protests that had dwindled in recent weeks outside the Ferguson Police Department. About 150 people came out late Wednesday, many of them cheering the news that the police chief was leaving.
Some of the protesters briefly closed South Florissant Road in front of the police station. They were confronted by police in riot gear, who stood in front of the station and closed access to a public parking lot next door. At least two people were arrested
Kayla Reed, of the Organization for Black Struggle, said she and others hit the streets because they didn’t want Jackson to be the scapegoat for the city.
“Jackson was not the one in riot gear or throwing gas at us and we recognize that,” Reed said.
She said she and others want the mayor and the entire police department ousted.
Susan Weich of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized Jackson's resignation.