Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The Ferguson Commission’s new report makes the simple case for consolidating the municipalities that make up St. Louis County.
The Ferguson Commission tasked with looking at the root causes of the unrest following the shooting of death of Michael Brown has released its final report—and it’s a stark, remarkable read. The 16 members of the commission, appointed by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, took their charge seriously. The nearly 200-page report outlines in detail some of the structural causes of racial discrimination in the St. Louis region.
“The Ferguson Commission has embraced the call to be ‘unflinching,’” the report reads. “For us, being unflinching has meant confronting the reality of our region. It has meant getting comfortable with some very uncomfortable data—data that highlights harsh facts about St. Louis.”
The report confirms much of what the public learned from the U.S. Department of Justice report on Ferguson, which examined the systemic ways that Ferguson courts and law-enforcement agencies discriminate against racial minorities. Unlike the DOJ, the Ferguson Commission has no formal authority to implement or enforce any of its recommendations. Governor Nixon could try to bring forward any of the commission’s dozens of policy suggestions. Or he could do nothing.
While the Commission’s findings on the sources of racial disparity in St. Louis are detailed, the policy recommendations (189 in all) are not. The commission does not attempt to politick their efforts. Some of them only run a couple dozen words long. These are not readymade legislative templates, but something closer to a set of truths that the commission holds self evident.
One of the most radical prescriptions in the report addresses one of the most potent sources of racial inequity in the fewest words possible:
The Missouri Supreme Court shall take direct jurisdiction of municipal court functions through the associate circuit court and consolidate into an appropriate number the municipal courts for the purpose of the efficient administration of justice.
If the Ferguson Commission could chisel that onto a stone tablet, then St. Louis County would be on its way to making progress.
The commission’s brief argument for the consolidation of various functions throughout St. Louis County draws on several sources, including Richard Rothstein’s “The Making of Ferguson” (a report from the Economic Policy Institute). In fragmented communities, the populations of majority-minority towns are especially vulnerable to exploitation. Traffic cops and local municipal courts in these communities (including Ferguson, Missouri) overpolice their residents in order balance their budgets, as they are too small to do so through other levies (or these agencies simply prefer not to).
Again, since the release of the DOJ report on Ferguson—if not sooner—it’s been well known that St. Louis County’s abundance of municipal police departments (60 in total) and wide array of municipal courts (81) are bugs, not features in a workable city plan.
“Many things unite the St. Louis region. But when it comes to municipal courts and law enforcement agencies, St. Louis is fragmented,” the report reads. “And these numbers reveal just one of the ways the current state of municipal fragmentation is both a result of and a propagator of racial disparity”
All the efforts to re-consolidate St. Louis County since the Great Divorce have all ended in failure. The last poll on the subject, a Post-Dispatch report from 2014 year, found strong support among St. Louis City voters (77 percent) but low support at the county level (39 percent). Until that figure changes, consolidation is still a pipe dream. But the Ferguson Commission’s report may be the cleanest, clearest explanation yet for why it’s so necessary.