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St. Louis Alderman: Criminals Exploit The Disconnect Between Citizens, Police

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

St. Louis Alderman Antonio French has been deeply involved in Ferguson this past year. Even though he's from the city of St. Louis, he opened a #HealSTL - Heal St. Louis office in Ferguson, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

ANTONIO FRENCH: Hi, thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: We've been asking about what has changed and what hasn't changed in Ferguson over the past year. In a nutshell, what would you say?

FRENCH: In a nutshell, I'd say not enough. You know, we've seen some faces change. We have a new police chief in Ferguson, a new judge, but the system still remains. You know, that system that was described in great detail from the DOJ report, that system remains. And I think that is what has caused a lot of frustration. People hope we wouldn't - have made more progress in this last year.

SIEGEL: Key finding of the Department of Justice was that the desire for city revenue, not public safety, was the motive for so many traffic stops. Blacks were disproportionately stopped. Is that still going on?

FRENCH: Yeah. That is still going on. And that's what I mean by the system is that the revenue stream for the city of Ferguson, along with many other municipalities, and so for us in St. Louis region it's not just about Ferguson. But many of these municipalities still have systems in place that really depend on that revenue stream. And until they either come up with a different funding source or, you know, cutback city costs, perhaps by dismantling some of these small police departments, then we're still going to have that problem.

SIEGEL: Well, there is a new law that's been passed since last summer which caps how much a city can rely on traffic fines and the like for its revenues. What are - how are people responding to that? Is there talk in Ferguson of either raising taxes or cutting back on services? What will they do?

FRENCH: Well, you know, this is going to be - really going to be the key issue. And so this law is passed. It's going to really affect a lot of municipalities in north St. Louis County. Many of these are black cities with black governments and black leadership. And so by cutting the revenue stream without replacing it somehow, either the city services will be cut back in some way. Perhaps quality of life issues may be affected in those cities. And so I think the desire from the state legislature was to force a change. Now, where that directs us and what that change looks like, we really don't know, and so we still have a lot to work out.

SIEGEL: Now, the protests this week in Ferguson - is there a clear agenda and a set of demands that protesters have this year that either the city of Ferguson or the state of Missouri could respond to? Or is this more a demonstration of anger?

FRENCH: Well, you know, the protest community, it does not have a central leader. It does not have central leadership. And so that has caused some frustration among some folks and it also, from afar, can look a bit disorganized. Now, you add to that that these crowds at night really are a bunch of groups - a bunch of different groups - that happen to be in the same place at the same time. And so, you know, some of the groups out there are just angry. Some of them are more political and pushing for a specific change. And then you have some folks out there - a very small minority - that were just opportunist criminals that just use the cover of protest to commit crimes.

SIEGEL: You tweeted the other night - I let four guys run into the #HealSTL - the Heal St. Louis office - to get away from the gunfire. While I was in the front, they stole laptops and iPads.

FRENCH: Yeah. That was, like, the icing on a disappointing cake. It was already a rough night and then for, you know, those young men to just do that, you know, it wasn't so much about what they stole. It was just - I was really disappointed in those young men.

SIEGEL: But it suggests that there is a problem of protest crossing over into lawlessness or giving shelter to lawless behavior at some point.

FRENCH: Yeah. I think that's a better way to say it. I mean, it's the - when there is confusion, when there is chaotic moments, there are always those folks that will exploit that. And that's what we've seen, I think. But what it also highlights is really the danger in cities across America. We find ourselves in a place where there is a disconnect between community and police, and criminals are exploiting that. So you see rising crime rates in many different cities, including St. Louis city. And so we really have to do the hard work of repairing this relationship because police can't be effective without community, and communities can't be safe without police.

SIEGEL: Well, Alderman French, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

FRENCH: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who's been very much involved in affairs of Ferguson, Mo., all this past year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.