By Stephen Deere and Christine Byers, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)
FERGUSON, Mo. — If a behind-the-scenes effort is afoot to force out Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson and disband his police force, neither he nor his department is going quietly — nor quickly.
A series of stories in national and local media have reported about an “extremely delicate” plan for Jackson to resign and for his department to be disbanded. The plan has been billed as a way of reducing tension as the region braces for the potential of more civil unrest.
While Jackson’s resignation could occur with the stroke of a pen, dismantling Ferguson’s 53-member police department is a process fraught with legal uncertainty. It could take months — and a public vote — because of the city’s charter.
On Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for “wholesale changes” within the Ferguson Police Department, while speaking at a public forum in Washington. He declined to offer any specific recommendations, noting that Ferguson police were still under a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.
“I think he’s about to leave office and needs to say he accomplished something in Ferguson,” Jackson said in an interview Thursday. “Right now I’m low-hanging fruit.”
The public exchange between the nation’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer and the leader of one of its most controversial police departments comes as the area prepares for the results of a grand jury investigation into the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.
The Aug. 9 shooting has sparked multiple protests over the past three months. Jackson’s resignation, the disbanding of the police department and Wilson’s arrest have been among the protesters’ demands.
And some community leaders fear a violent reaction if Wilson is not indicted. A decision is expected by mid-November.
What some news reports have called a “multifaceted” plan would put St. Louis County’s Police Department in control of policing Ferguson. The county has similar arrangements in other municipalities.
But Ferguson differs from those municipalities in that it operates under a charter — the municipal version of a constitution. Changing it requires a public vote. The basis of Ferguson’s Police Department is found in Section 5.2 of that document, which says that the city’s code shall provide for the “following departments: Finance, Fire, Police … ”
It’s not clear from that passage whether a contract with St. Louis County for police services would meet those conditions.
“It may require a vote of the people,” said City Attorney Stephanie Karr.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles agreed, saying that it might be possible to dissolve the department through a court order, but even that was doubtful.
“I don’t know that the court’s power is limitless,” he said. “You would have to have some extraordinary reason to get rid of an entire police department.”
And, at this point, the Department of Justice’s investigation is continuing.
“I don’t see how any of this could happen before the grand jury (decision),” Knowles said.
Knowles believes the stories were leaked to pressure Jackson into resigning, but have had the opposite effect.
“I think all this has done is increase his resolve to stay,” Knowles said.
Jackson says he has no immediate plans to leave.
“I’m willing to resign if it would seriously help,” he said. “Right now I see it as taking the responsibility of this job and dumping it on someone else.”
Pat Washington, a spokeswoman for St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, said the idea of disbanding the department had come up at some meetings with local, state and federal officials, but it wasn’t being considered as a serious option. She also didn’t see how Jackson’s resignation would help.
“If the chief resigned today, who would replace him?” Washington said.
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO) did not respond directly to a question about whether he had attended talks regarding dissolving the police department, but instead issued a statement:
“I am engaging in ongoing discussions with other leaders about the obvious need to consolidate smaller, redundant law enforcement agencies with the help of the St. Louis County Police Department to provide stronger, more responsive public safety while ensuring increased transparency and more efficient use of scarce tax dollars.”
Knowles said residents have bombarded him with emails and phone calls expressing support for Jackson in recent days.
Resident Blake Ashby said it doesn’t make sense for Jackson to step down now.
“I tend think in times of upheaval you need a little stability,” he said. “It would be a symbolic victory for the protesters if he resigned, but I’m not sure it would make anything better.”
But Alexis Templeton, also a resident, said Jackson’s resignation, along with dissolving the department, would “be a huge step for the community.”
“I think many more people would be willing to sit at the table with the city,” she said.
Templeton said St. Louis County Police, who were heavily criticized for launching tear gas and shooting rubber bullets and protesters, would not be much of an improvement, but that Ferguson had “proven to be incompetent.”
Templeton, a prominent protester, was recently tapped to help with one of the city’s proposed reforms to its police department: a civilian review board.
She acknowledged that if it came to a vote, the police department would likely remain. The department enjoys good relations with older white residents, she said, but not so much with people of her skin color.
“I don’t think the vote would go well,” she said.
Photo: Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT