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Missouri lawmakers pass on dozens of Ferguson-inspired bills

FILE - In a Wednesday Jan. 7, 2015 file photo, about 130 people stage a die-in on the floor of the Missouri State Capitol Rotunda shortly before the 98th Missouri General Assembly begins to protest the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown. Missouri's Legislature ended with little action on bills proposed in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. On Friday, May 15, 2015, partisan discord sent the Senate home early without taking action on a measure that would have limited police use of deadly force. (Don Shrubshell/Columbia Daily Tribune via AP, File)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri’s legislative session began with hundreds of protesters shutting down the Senate, demanding changes to state law in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.

It ended Friday with the Senate again shut down — this time because of its own partisan divisions– and without action on a Ferguson-inspired bill that would have rewritten the laws police using deadly force.

All told, more than 60 Ferguson-related measures were introduced this session. Though a measure, propelled by concerns in Ferguson, passed limiting the powers and revenues of municipal courts, as did one rewriting the state’s student transfer laws that some said would aid families in the St. Louis suburb, some legislators said they had failed to pass anything meaningful in response to Brown’s death.

“We don’t have one piece of legislation that anyone here in this body can go home and say, hey, we did this for Ferguson,” Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, said. “As it was this summer … it still is today. Nothing has changed.”

Brown, a black 18-year-old, was fatally shot Aug. 9 by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson — an event that touched off widespread protests in the St. Louis area and around the country. But a grand jury declined to charge Wilson and a U.S. Justice Department report determined Wilson acted in self-defense.

A separate Justice Department report sharply criticized Ferguson’s law enforcement for racial bias and using its courts to generate revenue. In response, the Legislature passed a bill capping traffic fines, eliminating warrants for a failure to appear and limiting detainment for minor traffic violations.

Gov. Jay Nixon praised the bill as a “significant piece of legislation — one that will have a lot of effects for a lot of years.” He has not yet signed the legislation.

Both the transfer and municipal court bills “were spurred out of concerns surrounding the events in Ferguson,” said House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff.

“For anybody to say we didn’t address those issues or didn’t look at them, I just flatly disagree,” Richardson said.

Some Democratic senators said the transfer measure, which allows students to transfer within their districts and expands charter and virtual school options, would help address systemic education issues in poor minority communities. It’s also an issue lawmakers have grappled with for years; Nixon vetoed a different solution last year.

But overall, Democratic lawmakers said they were disappointed in the dearth of solutions during this session.

“It’s been inadequate to say the least,” said Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City.

Among the measures that failed were ones mandating police wear body cameras — Wilson was not wearing one when Brown was shot — and another requiring unpaid suspension if an officer shoots an unarmed person who’s more than 20 feet away.

The Ferguson-related measure that came closest to passing would have limited police officers’ use of deadly force in a way supporters said would comply with longstanding U.S. Supreme Court precedent. A version passed both the House and Senate, but because the House made changes, the bill returned to the Senate, which adjourned Friday without taking a vote.

Current state law allows the use of deadly force when an officer believes a suspect has committed or attempted a felony, is escaping with a deadly weapon or poses a serious threat. The measure would have limited the justification involving a felony to felonies that include inflicting or threatening serious physical injury.

Some Democrats, including Sen. Jamilah Nasheed from St. Louis, charged that the proposal did not go far enough.

“When you talk about deadly force, you have to talk about something with substance, with teeth,” said Nasheed, who participated in protests after Brown’s death.

Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, said he hopes to work out differences between the House and Senate next year.

“Today is not the end of the line on the Ferguson bills,” Dixon said Friday.

But Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat whose district includes Ferguson, said the selfishness of her colleagues on both sides of the aisle hampered progress on the deadly force measure.

“Of all the years to address the issues that happened because of Ferguson, this was the year and we had the attention of the Legislature,” said Chappelle-Nadal, who spent days alongside protesters. “It’s on their hands that there are people who could be killed this summer and the laws that are in statute right now are old and the people who shoot them may not ever be prosecuted.”

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