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Ferguson Commission report explains complex problems in plain language

Ferguson Commission report explains complex problems in plain language

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FERGUSON • It took nearly 10 months, countless meetings, extensive research, expert testimony, public hearings, and an estimated 20,000 hours of work from commissioners and other volunteers who participated in the process.

On Monday, the Ferguson Commission will formally unveil its product: a 198-page report that recommends changes in a variety of areas, in an attempt to address racial inequities highlighted by mass demonstrations over the past year.

“The law says all citizens are equal,” the report states in its introduction. “But the data says not everyone is treated that way.”

The Post-Dispatch was given a copy of the report, titled “Forward through Ferguson, a Path toward Racial Equity,” to review in advance. The full version is available digitally and will showcase videos, links and other interactive tools that offer “a rich clickable environment for exploration and investigation.”

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon established the commission in November following the outcry over the shooting death of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by white Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson.

From criminal justice and housing, to education and economics, the report offers indictments and solutions, using everyday language to describe complex policies.

“The general consensus or stereotype about a commission report, especially one that is charged by definition to be focused on policy recommendations, is that it’s going to be wonky and dense and not interesting and hard to read,” said Nicole Hudson, a public relations consultant retained by the commission. “So we wanted to make an intentional choice to use the language in which we are spoken to and reflect that as much as possible back to the people.”

The commission has put forth 189 “calls to action,” many of which had already been made publicly available. In the document, the commission goes into detail about how it arrived at its conclusions, as well as providing an extensive bibliography of its research.

The report groups the recommendations into four categories:

• Justice for All.

• Youth at the Center.

• Opportunity to Thrive.

• Racial Equity.

“We believe that if we attempt to skirt the difficult truths, if we try to avoid talking about race, if we stop talking about Ferguson, as many in the region would like us to, then we cannot move forward,” the report says. “Progress is rarely simple, and it rarely goes in a straight line.”

Among the proposals:

• Consolidating the metro area’s many police departments and municipal courts — both of which have been accused of targeting minorities to raise revenue for cities and seen as key factors in the unrest following Brown’s death.

• Establishing a statewide use-of-force database to track police shootings and make the data publicly available.

• Developing a comprehensive statewide plan for dealing with mass demonstrations that focuses on the preservation of human life and allowing credentialed members of the media to cover events without being threatened with arrest.

• Ending hunger for children and families, partly by expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance and the Women, Infant and Children food programs, as well as identifying children during the school year who will need summer meal programs.

• Establishing school-based healing centers that will address behavioral and health issues.

• Ensuring access to equitable rigorous high school courses to help narrow the gap between the number of white and minority students who need remedial instruction in college.

• Ending predatory lending by capping the maximum annual percentage rate of interest for loans at 36 percent.

The report also acknowledges the commission’s limitations — and what others have cited as a key reason for skepticism about how effective its report will ultimately be.

“No matter how sound our calls to action, they are calls — the Commission does not have the power to enact them,” the report says. “This means that while this report includes many specific policy calls to action, it is not an implementation plan.”

In an interview last month, before the anniversary of Brown’s death, Montague Simmons, executive director of the Organization for Black Struggle, expressed gratitude that a number of high-profile black leaders had served on the commission, including Co-Chair Starsky Wilson. But while he admired their efforts, he wasn’t holding out much hope that the commission’s work would be transformative.

“It may validate some of the things we have been saying,” said Simmons. “Usually commissions come out with reports that are as honest as all day. But then government doesn’t respond.”

For many of the commission’s recommendations to be successful, government leaders will have to respond. The report identifies dozens of different government entities responsible for implementing the proposals.

Nixon has said the commission will have the full authority of his office behind it.

That authority expires in 2017, when Nixon’s term ends, a fact which he seemed to be acutely aware of in an interview with the Post-Dispatch last week.

“The people of the state of Missouri have given me 488 more days to be governor,” Nixon said. “I’m going to continue to work on these issues. That’s the one thing I can promise is what I’ll do. I am not going to be guided by cynicism.”

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Stephen Deere is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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