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Racial questions have dogged the Ferguson, Mo., police

FERGUSON, Mo. — When an unarmed black teenager and a police officer crossed paths here last weekend with fatal results, the incident cast a blinding spotlight on a small police department struggling for authority and relevance in a changing community.

Since the shooting, the department has been criticized for how police have handled the response to the incident and for not disclosing key details, including the name of the officer involved.

The department bears little demographic resemblance to the citizens of this St. Louis suburb, a mostly African-American community whose suspicions of the law enforcement agency preceded Saturday afternoon's shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old who this week had been headed to technical college.

But while the racial disparity between the public here and its protectors has come to define the violent aftermath of Brown's death, the department's problems stretch back years and include questions about its officers' training and racial sensitivity.

The office of Missouri's attorney general concluded in an annual report last year that Ferguson police were twice as likely to arrest African-Americans during traffic stops as they were whites.

And late last year, the state chapter of the NAACP filed a federal complaint against the St. Louis County Police Department, whose officers are assisting Ferguson's force since the shooting, over racial disparities in traffic stops, arrests and other actions.

Tensions between residents and the police have shaped the aftermath of Brown's death in unpredictable and alarming ways. Those include the nightly clashes between young residents, most of whom are African-American, and a predominantly white police force dressed in full riot gear and armed with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets.

On Wednesday, Ferguson police Chief Thomas Jackson acknowledged the problems facing his department and asked the community for help in restoring trust.

"Apparently, there has been this undertow that has bubbled to the surface," Jackson said at a news conference. "It's our priority to address it and to fix what's been going wrong."

St. Louis is among the most segregated metropolitan areas in the nation. Ferguson, one of the 91 municipalities in largely white St. Louis County, has seen its population shift in recent years. About two-thirds of the city's 21,100 residents are black. That's a significant increase from 2000. White residents, who had accounted for 44 percent of the population, now make up just under 30 percent.

Yet the police force patrolling Ferguson has not changed along with the population. The police force has 53 members, and three of them are black. The city's mayor and police chief are white.

"I've been trying to increase the diversity of the department ever since I got here," Jackson said Wednesday, noting he had promoted two black superintendents.

"Race relations is a top priority right now," Jackson said.

Racial questions have dogged the Ferguson, Mo., police 08/13/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 13, 2014 10:52pm]

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