Racial tensions nothing new in St. Louis suburb

FERGUSON, Mo. – Racial tensions have run high for decades in this former railroad town that was once a mostly white St. Louis suburb until school busing and urban decay sent many families packing for more distant communities.

Today, Ferguson is nearly 70 percent black, but the law here is still enforced by a police department that is more than 90 percent white, a fact that helps engender widespread distrust of officers – never more so than last weekend, when a white officer shot and killed an unarmed young black man who was about to start college.

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said 50 of the city’s 53 police officers are white. He said he made recruiting and promoting black officers a priority when he took over four years ago after a three-decade police career in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Jackson said he promoted two black officers to sergeant in his first year in Ferguson, though one of those officers has since left for a better-paying job.

“I’m constantly trying to recruit African-Americans and other minorities,” he said. “But it’s an uphill battle. The minority makeup of this police department is not where I want it to be.”

The town of 21,000 has been on edge since Michael Brown, 18, and another teenager were confronted by an officer Saturday near Brown’s apartment. Police say one of the teens shoved the officer back into his car and a struggle ensued. Brown was struck by several bullets after emerging from the car.

Eyewitnesses have said Brown was raising his hands in surrender and that the officer kept firing. Authorities had said they would release the officer’s name Tuesday but later decided not to, citing death threats against the officer.

The FBI and St. Louis County police are conducting separate investigations.

The shooting sparked two nights of unrest. Looting broke out late Sunday at dozens of stores in Ferguson and neighboring communities. On Monday night, police used tear gas and fired “bean bag” rounds after a crowd turned rowdy, throwing rocks and bottles at officers. No serious injuries were reported.

Ferguson was once a middle-class suburban town known for its sprawling parks and tidy brick homes. For many years, it was largely white.

Over the past few decades, the demographics changed. As St. Louis city schools deteriorated, a voluntary busing program started in the 1980s that allowed parents to send their children to suburban districts. Some black families decided to leave the city, and the crime, behind and moved to nearby suburbs like Ferguson.

As more black residents moved in, whites in Ferguson began to move to outer suburbs.