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Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon On Ferguson: 'We've Listened, We've Learned'

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This past week, residents of Ferguson, Mo., and demonstrators from far afield mark the anniversary of the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. There were angry-but-peaceful protests.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Hands up - don't shoot.

SIEGEL: And there was also violence. More than a hundred people were arrested. Police shot a young man they said fired at them. A state of emergency was declared. We've asked several people this week what has changed in Ferguson over the past year. And today, we're going to ask Missouri governor Jay Nixon. Welcome to the program, governor.

JAY NIXON: Well, thank you for having me on.

SIEGEL: Last summer's events revealed a deep mistrust among blacks of the nearly all-white police force in Ferguson. Are things any better there in that regard?

NIXON: Well, it's been a very important year for the region, not only for that town, but for the entire state of Missouri. I mean, bottom line is we've listened; we've learned. And while, clearly, there's more work to do, we're moving in the right direction.

SIEGEL: The U.S. Department of Justice found that the small city of Ferguson was using its police force to raise revenue by issuing traffic citations, that the city's budget, not public safety, was behind the huge number of traffic stops, disproportionately stops of black drivers. When will those practices in Ferguson or other small towns and cities in St. Louis County, Mo., stop?

NIXON: Well, this is one of the things we tackled with great vigor during the last legislative session. I called for it in my state of the state, and the legislature responded with sweeping municipal court reform bill. It's going to cap the amount of revenue that local jurisdictions can use. It's going to change the way the traffic court violations are dealt with. It's going to have different judicial procedures, conflict of interest rules.

So on all of these fronts, the goal is to change the first court where the vast majority of people interact with the court system - it's a municipal court - change that from being a revenue producer back to what it should be, which is a place where justice is served.

SIEGEL: But since it has been a revenue producer, and not just in Ferguson, if you reduce the share of local revenues, you can bring in, from traffic fines and tickets, from 30 percent of the city budget down to 12-and-a-half percent of the city budget. Isn't the message, you'd better either raise your taxes, cut your services or give up your local government and just join the county?

NIXON: Well, it's going to have a fiscal impact. But St. Louis County is a county in which - specifically has a tremendous number of jurisdictions. Also, you know, a cost is police departments, so consequently, one place where you may see some merging with the larger jurisdictions - either the St. Louis County or some of the other larger municipalities - is in that area, which may also mean resource savings for those local cities.

SIEGEL: Of course, some blacks from St. Louis County say that this county with 90 municipalities in it of various sizes - many of those are part of the black power structure of the region and that they will lose those local governments in the next couple years.

NIXON: Like I said, St. Louis developed a county especial with a number of small municipalities. And as the county has grown over the years to over a million in population, you're now in a situation with some very small jurisdictions with very limited abilities to meet their responsibilities. So while there may be some local issues that arise, ultimately, we think not having too much government but the appropriate size of government there is what the folks of St. Louis County will end up with.

SIEGEL: You said, at the outset, that this has been a year when you've listened and you've learned. For you, personally, what have you learned over this past year? What's the learning experience been?

NIXON: Well, I've learned that, you know, a whole new generation - a lot of young folks feel a tremendous amount of energy around these issues of police relationships and municipal courts and local courts and that what happened last summer has given them an opportunity, even when their voices are raw, to speak out. And that's, quite frankly - it's heartening to see that voice rise up and to see some of the concrete things that have happened, whether it's the enhanced police training standards of our post commission that we announced two weeks ago, this bill we're talking about today, municipal court reform, the fact that we put thousands of kids to work last summer to Summer Jobs League program. All of these are concrete examples of steps of progress forward by learning from these young people how raw some of these emotions were and how we all needed to work together to continue the progress in these areas.

SIEGEL: If, in fact, the additional training and the higher standards of police forces - if they're achieved, what's the most important thing that'll be improved in that process? What're you hoping to gain by having the police better trained?

NIXON: Well, there's three areas we're focused on in police training. One is dealing with tactics, especially in how you can deescalate situations. And I think there's been a lot of good training done around our country. Number two is deal with the folks that already have challenges, especially in the mental health area. We've been working on this area in a number of years. The third is in officer wellness. I mean, it's difficult and continuing to get hard to recruit folks to be police officers. We want to make sure that we are getting the best and the brightest. We're giving them the best training we can.

SIEGEL: But by wellness, are you addressing matters like stress? Is that what you're talking about?

NIXON: Absolutely. I mean, these police officers on the front line have had a tremendous amount of stress. And so those wear on the family and the individual officers, and we want to make sure that they don't build up that stress and act out. So deal with stress, high-stress situations - we think that's an officer wellness area that could make a difference to make sure that those officers continue to improve their professionalism.

SIEGEL: Governor Nixon, thanks for talking with us today.

NIXON: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's Governor Jay Nixon of Missouri, who's a Democrat, by the way. He spoke to us from the capital, Jefferson City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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