FERGUSON, Mo.—Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on Tuesday announced a commission to address the “social and economic conditions” highlighted by months of protests surrounding the killing of a black teenager by a white Ferguson police officer.
Nixon said the group, which he named the “Ferguson Commission,” would consist of about 15 people and have three goals: to study the underlying causes of the unrest, to tap into expertise needed to address those concerns and to make specific recommendations for “making the St. Louis region a stronger, fairer place for everyone to live.”
“We need to solve these problems ourselves,” Nixon said at a news conference at St. Louis Community College’s Florissant Valley campus. “We need to solve them together, and we need to act now.”
Nixon said he will choose who sits on the panel, and will announce those appointments early next month. He said anyone who wants to apply could do so on the state’s website. He expects the work of the commission to take six months to a year.
Asked “what kind of teeth the commission will have,” Nixon declined to be specific, except to say “it’s going to have the full authority of my office ... It will have the resources necessary.”
Nixon also addressed speculation that his commission was an attempt to prepare the community for the possibility that Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson won’t face any charges at the state or federal level. A St. Louis County grand jury is currently weighing whether to indict Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, on Aug 9.
“That’s not the thought behind it,” Nixon said. “The investigations on the local level and federal level are obviously continuing, and that’s up to the grand jury and the Department of Justice ... I see this as a separate and vital track.”
The governor has been criticized for his lack of involvement in the aftermath of the Brown shooting and the protests that followed.
And when he has spoken, his words have sometimes provoked a furor among Brown and Wilson supporters.
In August, Nixon announced that he would not ask St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch to step down from the case, angering many protesters who claimed that McCulloch’s ties to law enforcement ran too deep.
But Nixon also called for a “vigorous prosecution,” prompting cries from Wilson supporters that the governor had prejudged Wilson’s guilt.
“I think he’s been like a deer caught in the headlights,” said Ferguson Township Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Bynes.
Bynes, who has regularly attended the protests in Ferguson, called the commission “long overdue.” She said that Nixon has had a tense relationship with the black community for years dating back to his time as state Attorney General.
But Bynes said the Ferguson Commission could be an opportunity for the governor to move beyond words and into meaningful actions, such as addressing the “cultural problem within law enforcement where you can’t question their authority” and fixing a municipal court system that many claim profits from poverty.
“There needs to be some real structural changes to the way things are done in St. Louis County,” Bynes said.
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St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who has also become a prominent figure amid the protests, said the key to Nixon’s plan will be the individuals he selects to serve.
“It will come down to the voices that are on that commission,” French said.
Nixon’s news conference was attended by about 75 people, including local ministers, state and county elected officials, County Police Chief Jon Belmar and St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, along with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
Noticeably absent were officials from Ferguson. Mayor James Knowles III, who said he wasn’t invited to the news conference, showed up to the event late. He said his city was not briefed about Nixon’s announcement beforehand and that he did not yet have an opinion on it.
“I just have this to read,” Knowles said, holding up a news release.
Knowles said he understood the need for broader conversations about conditions to which the protests have drawn attention, but he wished Nixon’s office would have reached out to the city.
“If you want to name it after Ferguson, if you want to name it after the events here,” Knowles said, “you should include Ferguson.”
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