Alan “Al” Eickhoff, interim police chief in Ferguson, Mo., took over the embattled department in March after former Chief Tom Jackson resigned amid investigations into how police handled the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Eickhoff, 59, had joined the department as assistant chief five days before Brown’s shooting Aug. 9 by Officer Darren Wilson. Previously, he spent four years with the nearby Creve Coeur Police Department and 32 years with the St. Louis County Police Department.
After a grand jury decided in November not to indict Wilson in Brown’s death, riots erupted in Ferguson. Then in March, officials from the U.S. Department of Justice said Ferguson police had persistently and repeatedly violated the constitutional rights of African Americans. That led to the firing of the court clerk and the resignation of two officers, all of whom had sent racist emails, according to the report. The city manager and a municipal judge also resigned in the aftermath of the shooting.
Eickhoff recently discussed the challenges facing his department. Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity.
Why did you want to be interim police chief, given what’s happened during the past year?
I really wasn’t asked, I was kind of told. But had I been asked, I would have taken the job. I was assistant chief and when Tom stepped down; we needed someone to lead the troops.... I’m not sure if we had [gone] outside of the department, we would have found a lot of people who wanted to go into that hot spot.
Ferguson was the igniter and we have continued to be the hot spot. Everybody blames us.... We don’t need any more problems. There’s a lot of work we need to do with the community and with our officers. There was tension all over the United States. We’ve had a lot of meetings from visiting chiefs and people from all over the United States and everybody pretty much admits we were the igniter. It turns out the “Hands up, don’t shoot” didn’t even happen.
We got a lot of negative notoriety and it all stemmed from Michael Brown’s body having to [lie] on the parking lot for 41/2 hours. The reason he was there for so long was because of hostile fire against our officers. We could not get to Michael Brown’s body.
It just so happens we were the starting point, the first ones out of the gate, but when I hear people blame things on Ferguson I don’t think it’s fair. Because I don’t think other people have paid protesters flying to their city.
What is the toughest part of being a police officer in Ferguson now?
Everybody feels there’s this big lack of trust between the citizens and the police, so we’re trying to develop that trust. The other thing is, everybody is watching you. If you get out of your car, there’s people filming you with phones, there’s media — so you feel like you’re being scrutinized.
I tell the officers: “If you’re doing your job right, you don’t have to worry about it. You can’t be afraid to do your job. If you treat everybody with respect, treat everybody nice, a lot of times on a traffic stop or anything like that, it goes a long way.”
There’s a lot of stress.... Everyone wonders, “Could I be the next Darren?” It’s hard on the officer, and it affects their families too.
We’ve had a couple families [that] have been uprooted and had to leave town. The kids say, “Dad, why do we have to move?” “Because I don’t think it’s safe.” It wears on any officer.
What would you like the Ferguson community to know about your department? What would you like the country to know?
Right now when you talk to people outside of our area, a lot of people believe Ferguson is a racist police department. Unfortunately, I can’t go into the [Department of Justice] report. I would have a field day with the DOJ report.
There were some questions about why we didn’t have more minorities. We didn’t have a high turnover rate. Now recently we have been losing officers due to retirement. We lost two due to the email incident.
We have officers who take pride in the community, who have kids go to school in the community. A lot of the interaction with protesters was not our department: the tear gas, [protesters] were saying they were pointing rifles at them. A lot of that was the unified command down on West Florissant [Avenue].
Anytime anything bad happens in Ferguson, it’s Ferguson’s fault even if it isn’t our department. When all this kicked off, we didn’t have riot helmets or gas masks — we were pretty much a bedroom community. All this was new to us.
St. Louis County, those other departments, assisted us. And all those things they did saved lives. Tear gas may irritate your eyes, but long term it doesn’t harm you. To have … violent clashes during those three days [following Brown’s shooting] and not lose a life is pretty impressive.
When people stop you on the street in Ferguson, what do they say?
One of the things I get from most of the community when I’m out either at a restaurant or talking to businesses is, “You guys are doing a good job.”
We’ve had two events on recent weekends [a 10K run and spring festival] and the turnout has been tremendous. The community supports us.
A lot of people want to talk about the DOJ report, which I can’t discuss because of the litigation. But what I do tell them is do not believe everything in the DOJ report because the people doing the investigations are not policemen.
What do you say to people who think Ferguson police cannot recover — that the city should be patrolled by county police or a new department?
Just wait and see. We’ll be fine. We’re going to go forward. Are we going to need help from other agencies when we have protests? Like any smaller department, we will. That’s why we have mutual aid.
We’ll survive. A lot of people like having their own police department — smaller — they feel like they get more attention.... Most of the time when you have council meetings and you talk to people on the street, they like their officers.
How do you aim to improve policing in Ferguson?
You got to come at it a whole bunch of different ways. One thing I’ve always been big on is getting out of the cars. When you travel, go to Washington, D.C., you see a lot of officers on horseback, on foot. They’re more approachable. I need to get my guys out of their cars. I’m telling them to walk, go to schools, have lunch. I’ve got to bridge that mistrust.…
We have officers who go to Neighborhood Watch meetings. That’s fine, but they’re not the officers who patrol. They [residents] want to meet the officers who are going to come to their doors. A lot of our events, we’ve had officers on bikes. I’ve got some officers training on bike patrols so we can ride the apartment complexes. It’s all about meeting, shaking hands.
We’ve got to get past the hard feelings. I’ve had a lot of people say we need to get back to where Ferguson was before. I told them no, we need to move forward.
If you’re a Ferguson resident, you’re tired of the protests. It affects traffic, businesses. People want to move on. Are we still going to have some people who want to do that? Yes. Maybe we’ll win them over; maybe we won’t. We’ve got to communicate. That’s how you resolve issues and come together.
In the nine months I’ve been here, I’ve probably had 500 meetings — meetings with people who were throwing rocks at me the night before. It’s going to take time. It may take a year or a few years.
Of the department’s 47 officers, four are African American, one is Latino, one Asian and three women. Do you plan to hire more minorities?
We are looking to sponsor one or two people in the police academy. We have nine contestants and seven are African American. We are looking to hire more minorities. But one thing I’m adamant about is that they meet certain standards and pass certain tests, background checks.
They sign a contract where they will stay for three years, they get paid while they attend the academy and come work for us. It’s a big commitment. If I hire a graduate from the July class… it will probably be February before I can get him in a patrol car.