Mayor who led Ferguson through turmoil is re-elected

April 5, 2017
Ferguson mayor James Knowles III, center, celebrates his election victory with his campaign supporters at the Lion's Club in Ferguson, Mo., Tuesday, April 4, 2017. Ferguson, Missouri's top elected official in the tumultuous 32 months since the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown won another three-year term Tuesday. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — Voters in Ferguson, Missouri, opted for experience over change in re-electing a mayor who has led them through a tumultuous 32 months since the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown thrust the St. Louis suburb into the national debate over race.

James Knowles III won a third term, holding off a challenge Tuesday from city Councilwoman Ella Jones, who was seeking to become Ferguson’s first-ever black mayor. It will be Knowles’ final term in office, due to term limits.

Voters also approved a ballot measure adding strict police body camera requirements to the city charter. Officers already use cameras, but the new policy will require them to be on virtually all the time and seeks to make footage more accessible to the public.

Knowles, 37 and a lifelong Ferguson resident, was first elected as a councilman at age 25, and was just 31 when he was elected mayor. Jones, 62, a retired Mary Kay executive, was elected to the council in 2015, her first elected position.

Ferguson was thrust into the national consciousness after white police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Brown on Aug. 9, 2014. The shooting of the unarmed, black 18-year-old led to months of sometimes violent protests and was a catalyst for the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Wilson was cleared of wrongdoing and resigned in November 2014.

But the investigation led to a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit over racially biased police and court practices. A settlement calls for significant changes in operations, including sensitivity training for officers, adoption of community policing techniques, court reforms and other measures.

The process is expected to cost more than $2 million and could take years. However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Monday that he’ll review the effectiveness of existing and proposed consent decrees, including in Ferguson.

Knowles told The Associated Press he has had no contact with anyone at the Department of Justice.

“Nobody’s talked to us,” Knowles said. “We’re not asking to have it changed.”

Knowles said Ferguson has “voluntarily made a tremendous amount of reforms in our police department. We’re not going back on those reforms.”

Gary Kemp, a 68-year-old retiree, said he voted for Knowles because he’s been a strong leader in the toughest of circumstances.

“He’s led us through some difficult times,” Kemp said. “We have faith that he’s totally invested in Ferguson and he’ll lead us through these difficult hours.”

Ferguson officers have used body cameras since a few weeks after Brown was shot, when two companies donated cameras. But critics cite flaws, including too many cases when the cameras aren’t on, limited public access to the footage and a policy that allows officers to review footage before filing reports.

The ballot measure requires officers to have the cameras on virtually all the time, forces the city to maintain body camera video for at least two years and makes footage from public places widely available. There is no estimate of the cost of the changes, Knowles said, but both mayoral candidates supported the measure.