Why the Ferguson Commission Co-Chair Believes New Report Will Bring Change to St. Louis

After Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer on a Ferguson street last year, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon created the Ferguson Commission, a group of 16 citizens from the St. Louis area, to study the underlying conditions exposed by the shooting and make public policy recommendations. The Commission recently released its final report with proposals for reforming not only policing practices but the education system, the courts and the punitive process for collecting municipal debts. A recent ProPublica investigation also showed that lawsuits over consumer debts disproportionately impacted black communities.

For this week’s podcast, Rev. Starsky Wilson, co-chair of the Commission, spoke with ProPublica reporter Paul Kiel about racial disparities in the debt collection system, why he believes the Commission’s report will spark actual policy change, and how arguments about “personal responsibility” distract attention from structural biases.

Rev. Starsky Wilson, right, co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, responds to a community member at the opening meeting of the commission. (AP/Sid Hastings)

Highlights from their conversation:

    • Some court reforms were enacted before the report was even finished. Familiar with the long history of ineffective “riot commissions” set up after similar uprisings, Wilson said the Ferguson Commission recommended reforms throughout the process. For example, after learning that some cities had built entire businesses with revenue from traffic tickets and fines, the Commission pushed for legislation, passed this year, capping how much municipalities can make from minor traffic violations. (0:58)
    • The report found that cascading debts make it harder for people in St. Louis to move from one socioeconomic class to the next. Among the top 50 metropolitan areas, Wilson said, the St. Louis region ranks 43rd in economic mobility. “No matter what people earn, they’re paying into a system of debt,” he said. (8:48)
  • Wilson argues that the emphasis on so-called “personal responsibility” often ignores structural problems. “It’s much easier to blame an individual that I can see than it is to study the issues, learn enough and then attempt to address the structural change that could actually impact all of our lives in a positive way,” he said. (10:39)

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, read the Ferguson Commission report Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equity, and Kiel’s The Color of Debt: How Collection Lawsuits Squeeze Black Neighborhoods.