FERGUSON • City leaders have not had a significant presence at the nightly demonstrations that often turn into police standoffs, but on Tuesday the city announced steps it hopes will improve race relations and bring “nighttime quiet and reconciliation.”
The police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown has transformed a section of Ferguson along West Florissant Avenue into a demonstration zone at times filled with tear gas.
“It is our hope that as we continue to work for the well-being of Ferguson, residents will stay home at night, allow peace to settle in, and allow for the justice process to take its course,” the city said in a statement. “We owe it to our children to be able to return to school and work together peacefully for Ferguson’s future.”
The city has pledged to work to help increase black applicants to the county’s police academy, raise funds to secure dash and vest cameras for all officers, develop programs and incentives to encourage residency of police officers in Ferguson, work with schools to engage young people and provide resources for growth, and rebuild the West Florissant business district.
In an interview, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said he is working to bolster minority hiring in a police department that has just three black officers on a force of 53. But he cautioned that it will take time.
“We don’t hire a new cop every year,” Knowles said. “Every time we do, we are rushing out there to find an African-American officer. It’s a problem that we’re committed to working with others to fix.”
Knowles said a problem is that the pool of black officer candidates is low and that other larger departments are better at recruitment because they can pay more and offer more opportunities for advancement.
But Knowles fought back against criticism that he and five of the six City Council members are white in a city that is two-thirds black.
“They (city residents) hate me so much that I’m running unopposed,” Knowles said of his re-election efforts.
Knowles was elected mayor in 2011 at age 31. He had served on the City Council before that.
The City Council members have been quiet during the unrest. They have referred all questions to a public relations firm in Chesterfield hired by the city. They are:
• Tim Larson, a research and development manager at Hunter Engineering. In 2011, he was appointed to fill a vacant position on the council and was later elected to a full term in 2012.
• Keith Kallstrom, a retired military veteran whose city biography says he “strongly believes that a safe and prepared city is an asset to any family raising children in Ferguson.”
• Dwayne James, a senior sales coordinator for Jacobs Engineering. First elected in 2006, James is the city’s only black council member.
• Mark Byrne, a managing partner for the law firm Fischer & Byrne. Byrne’s online biography says his focus is to build stronger neighborhood associations, “making sure that Ferguson remains fiscally responsible.”
• Kim Tihen, a former administration assistant who later served as a Ferguson police officer for four years. The city’s website says her focus is on “crime prevention, fiscal responsibility, and increased communication between city officials and residents.”
The city’s website doesn’t list biographical information for council member David Conway.
Knowles, who has spent almost his entire life in Ferguson, said the council members are working to improve relations and will be announcing future initiatives.
Knowles said he has been out in the city every day but has stayed away from the nighttime gatherings that turn violent. But he pledged to remain active in the community as it seeks to heal.
“We should be looking out for your neighbors every day of the year,” Knowles said.