After months of unrest in Ferguson, lawmakers look to help region rebound
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After months of unrest in Ferguson, lawmakers look to help region rebound

Date: December 16, 2014
By: Steven Anthony
State Capitol Bureau

The shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown sparked months of protests in Ferguson. Now as lawmakers prepare for the 2015 session, they have many ideas to help the region recover
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Wrap: Michael Brown was shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on August 9.

48 hours later, the town was awash in tear gas and militarized vehicles, all of which was being broadcast on local and national news for everybody to see.

Fast forward to November 24 when Wilson was not indicted for shooting Brown and the same scene from August played out in the streets of Ferguson.

Police cars and businesses were set on fire, a CNN reporter was hit by a rock while reporting live on the air, and gunfire was heard on different street corners.

All of this made Senator Eric Schmitt, who grew up in North County, very sad.

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Description: "It's just really kinda really sad. A profound sense of sadness of how all this has sort of played out and you see those buildings burning, you see people's dreams and the businesses that they provide for their families."

With the 2015 legislative session set to begin in just a few weeks, the conversation has turned to ways of helping the St. Louis region rebound and how to make police officer's work more transparent.

One idea proposed by Ferguson-area Representative Sharon Pace is to require police to wear body cameras.

Pace says this would cut down on many problems in the fact-gathering process.

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Description: "I just believe that it will dispel some of the rumors as well as have more accuracy if you have that type of equipment."

Senate Appropriations chairman Kurt Schaefer agrees that body cameras could help.

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Description: "There's a lot of time and effort put into determining what the facts are and so, when you have a video record of what the facts actually were, it certainly makes that a lot easier and a lot more efficient for everyone who has to investigate it, as well as just in terms of fairness and justice a more accurate picture of what happened."

Schaefer represents Columbia, whose officers have worn body cameras for the past few months, as has the city of Fulton.  

But incoming Speaker of the House John Diehl cautions those who wants body cameras mandated by the state.

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Description: "If the local jurisdictions choose and want to do that as a matter of their policing methods and set the policies, that's okay. But when you try to set a statewide policy on that, I think that becomes more problematic."

St. Louis area black lawmakers have filed a number of bills relating to police work.

The bills would establish a community relations training program for officers, allow schools to put criminal justice material into their curriculum, and have officers complete a program to determine if they are 'culturally competent.'

Others would restrict the use of deadly force to only if an officer believes the suspect poses a danger to themself, appoint a special prosecutor to investigate a case if an officer uses deadly force, and only allow tear gas in a state of emergency if it conforms with human rights standards.   

Another issue lawmakers raised is changing the state's education system.

Diehl says education policy is key. 

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Description: "And if we're going to address the root problems of what's going on in our inner cities and our suburbs, it has to start with the lack of education that a good number of kids are receiving there."

Last session, Governor Jay Nixon vetoed a school transfer bill that attempted to help students in unaccrediated school districts transfer to accredited districts in their area.

Nixon objected because of a voucher for private schools.

Joplin-area Representative Bill Lant, chairman of the Workforce Development Committee, says a certain type of education can benefit areas like St. Louis.

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Description: "There's a tremendous need for electricians, for plumbers, for carpenters, for brick layers, all of those vocations that we've kind of forgotten about here in the past several years while we've tried to put so much emphasis on college education."

Diehl says vocational training can do great things for those in impoverished areas.

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Description: "I think vocational training is valuable. We've seen a little bit in this country stigmatized hands on work and hands on work, I think, is very important and is a way out of poverty for a lot of people."

Schmitt echoes the need for changes to the state's education laws.

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Description: "I look forward to working with my Democrat colleagues again and my Republican colleagues on trying to move us forward on a positive, forward-looking education bill that recognizes that we need some flexibility. There's some different things we might want to try in an urban school district versus a rural school district."

On a related note, lawmakers announced on December 11th that they would be investigating Nixon's decision not to put the National Guard in the areas where protestors were burning cars and looting businesses the night the grand jury decided not to indict Officer Wilson.

The investigation is just one issue related to Ferguson that lawmakers are preparing to take up in the 2015 legislative session that begins on Wednesday, January 7.

Reporting from the state Capitol, I'm Steven Anthony.