In the hot seat in Ferguson

City’s in­terim po­lice chief dis­cusses chal­lenges fac­ing his de­part­ment

Los Angeles Times - - NEWS - By Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske molly.hen­nessy-fiske @la­times.com Twit­ter: @mol­lyhf

Alan “Al” Eick­hoff, in­terim po­lice chief in Ferguson, Mo., took over the em­bat­tled de­part­ment in March af­ter former Chief Tom Jackson re­signed amid in­ves­ti­ga­tions into how po­lice han­dled the shoot­ing death of18-year-old Michael Brown.

Eick­hoff, 59, had joined the de­part­ment as as­sis­tant chief five days be­fore Brown’s shoot­ing Aug. 9 by Of­fi­cer Dar­ren Wil­son. Pre­vi­ously, he spent four years with the nearby Creve Coeur Po­lice De­part­ment and 32 years with the St. Louis County Po­lice De­part­ment.

Af­ter a grand jury de­cided in Novem­ber not to in­dict Wil­son in Brown’s death, ri­ots erupted in Ferguson. Then in March, of­fi­cials from the U.S. De­part­ment of Jus­tice said Ferguson po­lice had per­sis­tently and re­peat­edly vi­o­lated the con­sti­tu­tional rights of African Amer­i­cans. That led to the fir­ing of the court clerk and the res­ig­na­tion of two of­fi­cers, all of whom had sent racist emails, ac­cord­ing to the report. The city man­ager and a mu­nic­i­pal judge also re­signed in the af­ter­math of the shoot­ing.

Eick­hoff re­cently dis­cussed the chal­lenges fac­ing his de­part­ment. Be­low is an ex­cerpt, edited for length and clar­ity. What is the tough­est part of be­ing a po­lice of­fi­cer in Ferguson now?

Ev­ery­body feels there’s this big lack of trust be­tween the cit­i­zens and the po­lice, so we’re try­ing to de­velop that trust. The other thing is, ev­ery­body is watch­ing you. If you get out of your car, there’s peo­ple film­ing you with phones, there’s me­dia— so you feel like you’re be­ing scru­ti­nized.

I tell the of­fi­cers: “If you’re do­ing your job right, you don’t have to worry about it. You can’t be afraid to do your job. If you treat ev­ery­body with re­spect, treat ev­ery­body nice, a lot of times on a traf­fic stop or any­thing like that, it goes a long­way.”

There’s a lot of stress.... Ev­ery­one won­ders, “Could I be the next Dar­ren?” It’s hard on the of­fi­cer, and it af­fects their fam­i­lies too.

We’ve had a cou­ple fam­i­lies [that] have been up­rooted and had to leave town. The kids say, “Dad, why dowe have to­move?” “Be­cause I don’t think it’s safe.” It wears on any of­fi­cer. What would you like the Ferguson com­mu­nity to know about your de­part­ment? What would you like the coun­try to know?

Right now when you talk to peo­ple out­side of our area, a lot of peo­ple be­lieve Ferguson is a racist po­lice de­part­ment. Un­for­tu­nately, I can’t go into the [De­part­ment of Jus­tice] report. I would have a field day with the DOJ report.

Therewere some ques­tions about whywe didn’t have more mi­nori­ties. We didn’t have a high turnover rate. Now re­cently we have been los­ing of­fi­cers due to re­tire­ment. We lost two due to the email in­ci­dent.

We have of­fi­cers who take pride in the com­mu­nity, who have kids go to school in the com­mu­nity. A lot of the in­ter­ac­tion with pro­test­ers was not our de­part­ment: the tear gas, [pro­test­ers] were say­ing they­were point­ing ri­fles at them. Alot of that­was the uni­fied com­mand down on West Floris­sant [Av­enue].

Any time any­thing bad hap­pens in Ferguson, it’s Ferguson’s fault even if it isn’t our de­part­ment. When all this kicked off, we didn’t have riot helmets or gas masks— wewere pretty much a bed­room com­mu­nity. All thiswas new to us.

St. Louis County, those other de­part­ments, as­sisted us. An­dall those things they did saved lives. Tear gas may ir­ri­tate your eyes, but long ter­mit doesn’t harm you. To have… vi­o­lent clashes dur­ing those three days [fol­low­ing Brown’s shoot­ing] and not lose a life is pretty im­pres­sive. When peo­ple stop you on the street in Ferguson, what do they say?

One of the things I get from most of the com­mu­nity when I’m out ei­ther at a restau­rant or talk­ing to busi­nesses is, “You guys are do­ing a good job.”

We’ve had two events on re­cent week­ends [a 10K run and spring fes­ti­val] and the turnout has been tremen­dous. The com­mu­nity sup­ports us.

Alot of peo­ple­want to talk about the DOJ report, which I can’t dis­cuss be­cause of the lit­i­ga­tion. But what I do tell them is do not be­lieve ev­ery­thing in the DOJ report be­cause the peo­ple do­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tions are not po­lice­men. What do you say to peo­ple who think Ferguson po­lice can­not re­cover— that the city should be pa­trolled by county po­lice or a new de­part­ment?

Just wait and see. We’ll be fine. We’re go­ing to go for­ward. Are we go­ing to need help fro­mother agen­cies whenwe have protests? Like any smaller de­part­ment, we will. That’s whywe have mu­tual aid.

We’ll sur­vive. Alot of peo­ple like hav­ing their own po­lice de­part­ment— smaller— they feel like they get more at­ten­tion.... Most of the time when you have coun­cilmeet­ings and you talk to peo­ple on the street, they like their of­fi­cers. Howdo you aim to im­prove polic­ing in Ferguson?

You got to comeat it a whole bunch of dif­fer­ent ways. One thing I’ve al­ways been big on is get­ting out of the cars. When you travel, go to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., you see a lot of of­fi­cers on horse­back, on foot. They’re more ap­proach­able. I need to get my guys out of their cars. I’m telling them to walk, go to schools, have lunch. I’ve got to bridge that mis­trust.…

We have of­fi­cers who go to Neigh­bor­hood Watch meet­ings. That’s fine, but they’re not the of­fi­cers who pa­trol. They [res­i­dents] want tomeet the of­fi­cers who are go­ing to cometo their doors. Alot of our events, we’ve had of­fi­cers on bikes. I’ve got some of­fi­cers train­ing on bike pa­trols so we can ride the apart­ment com­plexes. It’s all about meet­ing, shak­ing hands.

We’ve got to get past the hard feel­ings. I’ve had a lot of peo­ple saywe need to get back to where Ferguson was be­fore. I told them no, we need to­move for­ward.

If you’re a Ferguson res­i­dent, you’re tired of the protests. It af­fects traf­fic, busi­nesses. Peo­ple­want to move on. Are we still go­ing to have some peo­ple who want to do that? Yes. Maybe we’ll win them over; maybe we won’t. We’ve got to com­mu­ni­cate. That’s how you re­solve is­sues and come to­gether.

In the nine months I’ve been here, I’ve prob­a­bly had 500meet­ings— meet­ings with peo­ple whowere throw­ing rocks atme the night be­fore. It’s go­ing to take time. It may take a year or a fewyears. Of the de­part­ment’s 47 of­fi­cers, four are African Amer­i­can, one is Latino, one Asian and three women. Doyou plan to hire more mi­nori­ties?

We are look­ing to spon­sor one or two peo­ple in the po­lice academy. We have nine con­tes­tants and seven are African Amer­i­can. We are look­ing to hire more mi­nori­ties. But one thing I’m adamant about is that they meet cer­tain stan­dards and pass cer­tain tests, back­ground checks.

They sign a con­tract where they will stay for three years, they get paid while they at­tend the academy and come work for us. It’s a big com­mit­ment.

Wally Skalij Los An­ge­les Times

PRO­TEST­ERS in front of City Hall in Ferguson, Mo., last year. Protests broke out af­ter a grand jury de­clined to in­dict an of­fi­cer in Michael Brown’s death.

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