FERGUSON, Mo. — Addressing one of the U.S. Justice Department's primary recommendations for the Police Department here, the new acting police chief said Thursday that he was working to better integrate his officers with the community by putting them on more bike patrols and encouraging them to walk the beat and speak with residents.The efforts pushed by Chief Alan Eickhoff, who took his post a week ago, come even as he conceded that many of his officers were still worried about their safety as anger continues after a white Ferguson police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager last August.
Safety concerns were stoked further after demonstrators recently set upon a black Ferguson officer who was responding to a disturbance at a local McDonald's, yelling profane slurs at him and throwing plastic water bottles.
"You can't let a few people destroy what we're trying to do," Eickhoff said. "I worry every night when I go home at night, am I going to get a phone call, two o'clock in the morning, one of my officers have been hurt, shot, killed?"
Eickhoff, 58, joined the department as the assistant chief only about five days before Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson. Eickhoff said he would apply for the permanent position as chief only if the City Council is pleased with his work and he is asked to apply.
He said he would immediately start to address some of the concerns and recommendations in the Justice report, which recommended diversifying the department, changing ticketing practices and training officers on how to use force more appropriately.
Eickhoff said he was trying to recruit a black Ferguson resident as a cadet, who would be paid by the city while attending the police academy and then join the city's police force upon graduation.
Most important, Eickhoff said, he would get more officers into the community to engage residents in a positive way. He will, for instance, encourage them to take their lunch breaks at local schools.
"It doesn't take much to take that step," he said, adding that he wanted to ensure that his officers knew how to interact respectfully with residents. "If you treat people the way you would want to be treated or the way you would want your family to be treated, 99 percent of the time you are not going to have a problem."
Some of the biggest criticism of law enforcement since Brown's death was its use of tear gas against demonstrators. And on Thursday, several law enforcement agencies in Missouri agreed to limit the use of tear gas as part of a settlement to a federal lawsuit brought by demonstrators. Eickhoff said he was looking to expand the department from its 50 members to the 55-officer limit that the city allows. Four of the current officers are black, two are Hispanic, one is Asian and there are two women.
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Recruitment is difficult when there are episodes like what happened to the black officer at the McDonald's, Eickhoff said.
"Here's my African-American officer, who, like I always tell, could be my poster child," he said. "Educated man, loves this department, loves this community, and he's set upon and abused and assaulted by water bottles. Now I'm supposed to go out the next day and recruit African-American officers? And they're like, 'Wow, we're being singled out. Why would I want to come here?' "