Ferguson police chief steps down; official calls it 'long overdue'

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson is the latest city official to resign since a blistering federal report

Ferguson, Mo., Police Chief Thomas Jackson, the face of a department engulfed by unrest after last summer’s shooting death of black 18-year-old Michael Brown, had fended off repeated calls to step down, but he agreed Wednesday to do just that.

“After a lot of soul-searching, it is very hard for him to leave, and for us to have him leave,” said Mayor James Knowles III, who announced Jackson’s departure at a news conference and described the move as “mutual” between Jackson and city officials. “He felt this was the best way to move forward.”

Jackson was the face you saw on TV: The soft-spoken leader of a small-town police department clearly overwhelmed by the violent protests that rocked the St. Louis suburb last year and sparked a national discussion of police use of force.

Off-screen, to U.S. Justice Department investigators, Jackson was one of the hands minding a law enforcement machine that ticketed, jailed and racially profiled the city’s predominantly black residents to raise money for the predominantly white city government.

Jackson’s decision to heed the long-accumulating calls for his resignation came one day after City Manager John Shaw resigned and two days after Municipal Judge Ronald J. Brockmeyer stepped down.

It was seven months ago that one of Jackson’s officers killed the unarmed Brown, setting off months of unrest, and one week ago that federal investigators formally accused his department.

He will leave his post March 19 with a year’s worth of severance and health insurance, and Lt. Col. Al Eickhoff will take temporary command while the city searches for a replacement.

Jackson is the highest-profile Ferguson official to resign as change sweeps through the government of the suburb of 21,111 people, a town still scarred by the riots that broke out after Brown’s death Aug. 9, and after November’s grand jury decision not to charge Officer Darren Wilson, who is white.

“It’s a difficult time,” City Councilman Mark Byrne told The Times on Wednesday. “We’ve listened for many weeks and months to this stuff, and we’re doing our very best to try to address those concerns by in effect accepting resignations when people want to give them, and at the same time making the changes to the system if they’re needed and warranted.”

As anger intensified over Brown’s death, amid the protest cry “Hands up, don’t shoot,” Jackson, who is white, was sometimes visibly overwhelmed, especially when residents and other protesters heckled him in the few public appearances he made.

In one notable news conference on Aug. 15, Jackson stood in front of the burned-down husk of a QuikTrip convenience store to reveal Wilson’s name — and, to the rage of demonstrators, the allegation that Brown had stolen cigars and shoved a clerk shortly before he was stopped by Wilson. Jackson was accused of trying to smear Brown’s character.

More recently, Jackson has been less visible as public focus shifted from his handling of the shooting to the practices of Ferguson’s 54-officer department, which federal investigators have accused of inept bookkeeping and a pattern of violating residents’ rights.

Since the release of the Justice Department report, the fallout has been swift, and Jackson is only the latest city official to leave office.

“It’s long overdue,” said Antonio French, a St. Louis city alderman who was a fixture at many of the early demonstrations in Ferguson. “Many of us have been calling for his resignation for many months now, and after the DOJ report and some of the specific details of how his department operated … it frankly was a matter of time.”

French said Jackson’s resignation was “just the first of many steps Ferguson must take.”

Since last week, three city employees, including two police officials, were fired or resigned over racist emails. Judge Brockmeyer — who reportedly owed back taxes while overseeing an intensely criticized system that drew a large portion of city revenue through fines for traffic citations — quit; and on Tuesday night, Shaw agreed to leave his role overseeing the city’s departments.

It was Shaw who appointed Jackson in March 2010.

“It is with profound sadness that I am announcing I am stepping down from my position as chief of police for the city of Ferguson,” Jackson said in his resignation letter.

Since arriving on the job, according to the Justice Department’s report, Jackson had been encouraged by city officials to generate more revenue by fining residents or motorists passing through Ferguson, which sits amid a tangle of small suburbs in north St. Louis County that have their own police forces and municipal courts.

When Jackson reported that such increases had led to more revenue for the city, he was applauded by city leaders in internal correspondence, according to the Justice Department. (Jackson was not named as a sender of any of the racist emails, some of which were sent before he took office.)

The policies that Jackson tried to implement for the department were “routinely ignored,” the federal report said.

Tony Rice, a Ferguson resident active in the protest movement, said he was somewhat disappointed by Jackson’s resignation. “I was wanting him to stick around a little more because I thought he was malleable,” Rice said, adding that Jackson had sounded willing to listen to demonstrators’ proposal to abolish outstanding traffic tickets.

“I talked to him on a regular basis,” Rice said. “Most of the time, we talk off the record, and the funniest part was, his main concern most of the time was the safety of the protesters! … He never told me, 'Hey, man, don’t throw stuff at us, don’t cuss at us.’ … He was worried about our safety more than anything.”

Brown’s shooting led to a national dialogue about race and the police after heavily armed officers tried to control the surging crowds that marched nightly in Ferguson to demand what protest leaders said would be justice for Brown: murder charges for Wilson and, often, demands for Jackson to resign.

Some witnesses had said Brown was shot as he tried to surrender, leading protesters to adopt the “Hands up, don’t shoot” chant and turning Ferguson into a focal point for criticism of police tactics nationwide.

Wilson claimed self-defense, saying that Brown had reached for his gun and a struggle ensued, with Wilson shooting Brown six times.

After months of deliberation, a St. Louis County grand jury decided there was not enough probable cause to charge Wilson. Federal investigators later agreed, concluding that witness accounts that said Brown had his hands up were not reliable enough to pursue charges, and that physical evidence supported Wilson’s account.


Twitter: @mattdpearce

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