The crime and frustration that too often accompanies living in the inner city shaped Delrish Moss’ life.
As a child living in Overtown, he couldn’t get to school one day because a dead body slumped against his front door was blocking the way. As a teenager, he ran for cover when the city exploded in rioting after four white police officers beat motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie to death in 1980.
It was around that time, Moss recalls, that he was walking home from work when a Miami police officer got out of his patrol car, pushed Moss up against a wall and frisked him, then got in his car and left. Moss still doesn’t know why he did it.
“I was embarrassed and scared,” said Moss. “I decided I needed to become a police officer to teach these people how to treat people. Also, I hoped to become his boss and fire the guy.”
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Now Moss, 51, a police major on the chief’s executive staff, is one of four finalists for the top police job in Ferguson, Missouri. The department and the city gained worldwide attention two years ago when riots erupted after the police-shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
A federal civil rights investigation that followed found the department was not only mostly white in a majority black city, but that blacks were stopped and arrested at an inordinate rate mostly as a cash grab for the city.
“Ferguson needs a lot of things,” said Moss, who joined Miami’s police department in 1984. “It needs a massive recruiting drive to become more reflective of the community. You can’t tell me there are no qualified African Americans in that community.”
Moss’ boss in Miami, Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes, said the major’s strengths fit Ferguson’s needs.
“He is an expert in police community relations and that is what that community needs now,” Llanes said.
Last week, after several days of interviews between candidates and city and community leaders, Ferguson City Manager De’Carlon Seewood narrowed a pool of applicants that had swelled to 54, down to its final four. Ferguson is a small town of 20,000 residents on six square miles that rests only eight miles north of St. Louis.
Besides Moss, the final candidates are Mark Becker, police chief of East Chicago, Indiana; Macon Charter Academy behavior specialist Brenda Jones; and Frank McCall Jr., chief of police in Berkeley, Missouri.
In a statement, Seewood, who is expected to make his final choice by April, said, “We carefully selected candidates we felt had the experience to move the Ferguson Police Department forward, including someone who could immediately work with the community.”
Moss, reached late last week during the interview process, said he was still in Missouri awaiting a one-on-one with Seewood. Moss is scheduled to retire in September after a 32-year career with the Miami police department.
Moss, who oversees community and media relations in Miami, said he applied for the post after speaking with a family member in St. Louis — and after vivid images of his teenage years resurfaced. He said as he watched police cars burn and small businesses explode in Ferguson two years ago, he couldn’t shake thoughts of the violence that once surrounded him.
“I lived in Overtown when it burned. You see things being destroyed,” said Moss. “The people hurt the most are not the police or the businesses outside the area. It’s the people who live there. And I was one of those families.”
If selected, Moss would be tasked with helping to heal the wounds in a city that is Ground Zero for public protest and civil disobedience in the nation. The city catapulted to worldwide attention in 2014 when it erupted after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson, 28, during an altercation.
A lack of black police officers is a major sticking point in a recent civil rights lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice against the small town. Ferguson’s demographics have shifted dramatically the past half century. In 1970, Ferguson was 99 percent white; today, it’s 67 percent black. The city’s police department hasn’t caught up with the times: As of the middle of 2015, all but five of the city’s 54 police officers were white.
It was a confrontation between Wilson, a white cop, and Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on Aug. 9, 2014, that ripped open festering racial tension and led to months of civil unrest there and in Baltimore. Eyewitness accounts varied. But this was clear: Brown, unarmed, was shot after an altercation when he approached Wilson’s patrol car. Wilson said he believed Brown was reaching for the officer’s weapon.
The next three months in Ferguson would be a cat-and-mouse game with some arrests and mild outbreaks of civil disobedience.
But that changed on Nov. 24, 2014, when a grand jury decided against indicting Wilson. Standing in the middle of an angry crowd in front of the police department, Brown’s stepfather Louis Head screamed, “Burn this bitch down.”
Gunfire, looting and vandalism erupted. Police cars were set on fire. As the world watched, more than 25 buildings were blazing and a dozen burned to the ground. In total, 61 people were arrested that night on various charges. Firefighters backed out of burning areas when gunshots rang out.
St. Louis police and the National Guard were called in. U.S. Attorney Eric Holder visited to try to settle frayed nerves and to study the police department and its policies. As calm was restored, Holder opened the door to an investigation into the police department’s practices.
Brown’s death and the community’s reaction led to protests and civil unrest in other major cities. In New York, protest erupted after unarmed Eric Garner was choked to death by a white police officer for selling single cigarettes. And protest and rioting took to the streets of Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, who lost his life in the back of a police van during transport. Six officers there were indicted.
In March 2015, Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson, who is white, stepped down amid the turmoil and findings by the DOJ that police were stopping blacks at an inordinate rate, mostly as a cash grab for the city. In stepped Andre Anderson in the interim, a 50-year-old African American from Glendale, Ariz.. He promised to focus on community policing and lead a charge for new hires that would make the department’s demographics more in line with the city.
Still, in February the Department of Justice and its new director Loretta Lynch filed a civil rights lawsuit against Ferguson one day after city council members rejected a consent decree worked out between the government and city administrators. The federal complaint claims that officers were interfering with free expression and that traffic stops of mostly black men were done without legal justification. The complaint also says that today in Ferguson, blacks are twice as likely to be searched and arrested as whites; that blacks account for 88 percent of incidents when force is used; and that 95 percent of arrests made for walking in the road were of black residents.
“The department also found that Ferguson’s law enforcement conduct has created a lack of trust between the police department and the community members it serves, especially African Americans,” Lynch wrote.
Moss has worked his way through the ranks in Miami and has been the department’s face during some of its darkest hours. He was born in Miami and graduated from Miami High School in 1982.
He joined the department in 1984 as a public service aide. By 1987 he was patrolling the streets of Overtown, Liberty City, Allapattah and Coconut Grove, Miami’s four historically black communities. In 1989 he was promoted to homicide detective. He stayed there until 1995 when he was visited by then-Police Chief Donald Warshaw, who had decided Moss would be a great spokesman for the city.
Since then Moss has had his share of national attention: He spoke for the department as fires raged throughout Little Havana after federal agents hauled away Cuban rafter Elian Gonzalez in 2000. And he was there again in 2005 when Miami Commissioner Arthur Teele Jr., shot and killed himself in the lobby of the old Miami Herald building on Biscayne Bay.
In 2009 Police Chief John Timoney named Moss to his executive staff. Two years later he was promoted to major and has been overseeing community and media relations since. He is scheduled to retire in Miami in September.
John Rivera, who has known Moss for decades and who leads Miami-Dade’s largest police union, called Moss “a class act.”
The police major is a lover of jazz and big bands and his office is littered with plaques of appreciation from city leaders, local activists and church elders. He currently serves as president of the Police Athletic League and is a member of the NAACP.
Moss said his goals if he’s named police chief in Ferguson would be recruiting officers that would make the police department more reflective of the community, and repairing relationships between cops and residents in Ferguson.
“If you can deal with the needs, oftentimes you can avoid having to arrest. Ferguson needs to strongly build relationships,” said Moss. “A lot of what sparked my interest is I saw Ferguson and started thinking back to when I started. I got the sense that they were probably where we were 30 years ago.”