FERGUSON, Mo. — Two years after Michael Brown’s shooting death put a national spotlight on Ferguson police, the suburban St. Louis city is struggling to maintain the number of officers it needs.
The department is facing 13 vacancies. It’s down to a staff of 36 compared to 55 in 2014. Some officers have retired, while others who spent months dealing with protests and heavy scrutiny left for different jobs.
“Some just got fed up with police work,” Mayor James Knowles III said Wednesday.
Finding qualified applicants has been tough, he said, adding that leaders in the Missouri city are pushing to make the force, which was mostly white at the time of Brown’s fatal police shooting, more diverse. Ferguson has sponsored two young black men at St. Louis County’s police academy, paying for their training in exchange for an agreement to work in the suburb upon graduating. One recently graduated; the other is in the current class.
The plan is to continue the program with a third trainee in the next academy session.
Brown, who was unarmed, was shot by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson during a confrontation on Aug. 9, 2014. A county grand jury and the U.S. Justice Department eventually cleared Wilson of wrongdoing. He resigned in November 2014, but the shooting of a black 18-year-old by a white officer led to widespread protests and prompted a Justice Department investigation that found racial bias in the Police Department and a municipal court system that generated revenue largely on the backs of poor and minority residents.
The Police Department’s staffing was already down before the recent vacancies. Financial constraints related to the fallout since Brown’s death — including legal fees, reduced municipal court revenue, and costs for Justice Department-mandated changes — forced city leaders to reduce the authorized number of officers to 49 compared to 55 two years earlier.
Knowles and Police Chief Delrish Moss said the city is working to fill the positions, but there’s no timetable. The starting salary for a Ferguson police officer is $45,000 a year, thousands of dollars less than larger departments in the region pay.
Concerns about police staffing became public last week at a City Council meeting, when two former police dispatchers and the wives of two police officers demanded answers about the shortage amid concerns the city was keeping police levels down to save money.
“We are not now, nor were we ever, holding applications to save money,” Moss said Tuesday, adding that doing so “flies in the face of our obligation to the people that we serve.”
Ferguson isn’t alone in struggling to find qualified police candidates. Mitchell Weinzetl, assistant director of education for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said the recent shootings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, are part of the reason that many other departments across the country face the same shortage of applicants.
He said the protests against police that started with Ferguson two years ago have been a factor, too.
“There has been a regular parading of these events in the media on a national level which, based on our discussions with other agencies, have had an impact on the number of folks applying,” Weinzetl said.
Knowles is hopeful that Ferguson’s situation will improve.
Ferguson voters on Aug. 2 approved a utility tax hike that will generate $700,000 annually — the city’s second voter-approved tax increase this year. If the measure had failed, the police force’s authorized number would have been reduced to 44, and firefighter jobs also would have been cut.
Knowles said passage of the August increase sent a message that Ferguson is on solid financial ground. The city has received 20 new applicants for the police force since it was approved, he said.
“I think we’re seeing more confidence in Ferguson now, and hopefully we’ll get more qualified candidates,” he said.
This story has been corrected to show that Delrish Moss spoke on Tuesday, not Wednesday.