FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — Ferguson’s new police chief was ready to wrap up a long career with retirement and life as a “beach bum.” Instead, he felt called to help turn around a department that has come under intense scrutiny since the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.
Delrish Moss, 51, was sworn in Monday as Ferguson’s first permanent black police chief, just weeks after a federal judge approved the St. Louis County town’s agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice that seeks to resolve racial bias in the criminal justice system.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Moss spent his entire 32-year career in Miami, where he grew up.
“My plan was to retire in September and actually spend a lot of time just hanging out on the beach, be a beach bum, because I’ve had responsibility all my life,” Moss said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But there was something about Ferguson that sort of harkened back to the days in Miami when I was a kid living in a riot-torn neighborhood and when I was a young police officer dealing with civil unrest.
“There was something that called to me and said, ‘You have to get up. You can’t sit on the couch. You’ve got to get out there and offer your perspective,” Moss said.
Moss was selected as the new chief in March from among 54 applicants.
Brown’s death on Aug. 9, 2014, at the hands of officer Darren Wilson thrust the otherwise non-descript suburb into the spotlight and was a catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement. The black 18-year-old was unarmed when the white officer fatally shot him. Wilson told a St. Louis County grand jury that Brown, 6-foot-5 and nearly 300 pounds, was moving menacingly toward him.
The grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice cleared Wilson of wrongdoing, and he resigned in November 2014. But the shooting prompted months of protests. The unrest shed light on the strained relationship between black residents in Ferguson and the mostly-white police force. About two-thirds of Ferguson’s 20,000 residents are black.
In March 2015, the Justice Department released a report critical of Ferguson police for racial bias and profiling, and a municipal court that generated profits off of court fines and legal fees. Within days of the report, Ferguson’s city manager, municipal judge and Police Chief Tom Jackson resigned.
Andre Anderson, a black police veteran from Glendale, Arizona, took over as six-month interim chief in July, but left early on Dec. 2.
Moss grew up in Miami’s inner-city Overtown neighborhood, where a friend was killed by police. Around the age of 14, Moss was thrown against a wall and frisked by an officer for no apparent reason. About a year later, another officer pulled up and used a racial slur. He was a teenager when rioting broke out in 1980 after white police officers fatally beat a black motorcyclist.
Still, he decided to become a police officer and joined the Miami force in 1984.
“I’ve been on the receiving end of police officers hurling racial slurs at you.” Moss said. “I understand how it feels.”
In Miami, Moss rose through the ranks working in different departments, including homicide. He was named public information officer 20 years ago, and was promoted to the position of major in 2011.
Ferguson City Manager De’Carlon Seewood said Moss was a perfect fit for the job.
“He knows how to talk to citizens, talk to the press, and get them informed about changes,” Seewood said. “We haven’t done a good job of talking about the reforms that are being put in place.”
Ferguson officials have already made several changes since the shooting, including municipal court reforms aimed at lessening the financial burden of those accused of mostly minor crimes. Change in leadership was evident at Moss’ swearing-in ceremony: The municipal judge who administered the oath is black, as is the new city manager and three members who have joined the city council since April 2015.
Some residents said they were anxious to see what Moss brings.
“I don’t think the race matters,” said David Evans, a 74-year-old black Ferguson resident who attended the swearing-in ceremony. “It’s about doing the right thing. Being fair and equal is what it’s all about.”
Moss, speaking at the ceremony, made it clear to officers in his department: Those who step out of line will be dealt harshly.
“The police profession has been assailed because people have decided there’s no longer nobility in police work,” Moss said. He said it is the job of police to earn the respect of the community.