Delrish Moss, a popular and respected Miami cop who has served the city through trying times for three decades, was named Thursday to one of the most challenging posts in American law enforcement: chief of the Ferguson Police Department in Missouri.
Moss, who grew up in Overtown and first policed the streets of Miami during the racially charged 1980s, will head a department that became a symbol of racial strife for its heavy-handed handling of civil unrest that broke out two years ago after the death of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of a white police officer.
Moss will take the helm of a force vastly smaller than Miami, but rife with some of the same explosive issues that Miami experienced during his youth and early years as a street cop in the 1980s.
On Thursday afternoon, Moss reiterated his main goal in Ferguson: recruiting enough African American officers to mirror the community, which is about two-thirds black. As of last summer, Ferguson’s 54-member force had only five black police officers.
“We really need to beef up recruiting strategies,” said Moss. “We have to make the police department a lot more reflective of the community it serves. The challenge is going to be making sure everyone understands that the police are there for them and that they’ll get equal treatment.”
Ferguson City Manager De’Carlon Seewood made the announcement on Thursday in a prepared statement.
“Our officers have worked extremely hard to implement community policing and community engagement in their daily practices. Mr. Moss is the right man for the job to continue those initiatives,” Seewood said.
Moss, 51, a former homicide detective who now oversees media and community relations for Miami’s police department, will take over May 11. He was scheduled to retire from Miami in September. He will earn a base salary of about $120,000, less than the $160,000 a year he now makes in Miami.
Moss spent several days in early March interviewing for the Ferguson post and speaking with city and community leaders. He was one of four finalists, along with East Chicago, Indiana, Police Chief Mark Becker; Macon Charter Academy behavior specialist Brenda Jones; and Berkeley, Missouri, Police Chief Frank McCall Jr.
Moss said after meeting the police and community in Ferguson he found a racial divide that could be overcome through engagement. He also said he met a lot of competent, dedicated police officers in the department that he intends to lean on.
“Any chief who thinks he can do it all by himself is a fool,” said Moss. “There’s a lot of talent in that department.”
News of Moss’s appointment was met with applause by many in Miami who know him well. Former Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa, who promoted Moss to major, said the news nearly brought him to joyful tears.
“We’re losing a great gentleman, a true cop and a great speaker for the police department,” said Orosa. “They’re getting someone who is very stable in how he thinks and who will make all the changes necessary.”
Ferguson, a town of about 20,000 just eight miles northwest of St. Louis, was the epicenter for an explosion of protests over perceived excessive force against black males by police.
It was Aug. 9, 2014, when Ferguson officer Darren Wilson spotted Michael Brown, 18, walking down the street in the middle of the day. Wilson had been alerted to a nearby robbery in which two black males stole some Cigarillos from a convenience store. A confrontation ensued near Wilson’s patrol car. Then Brown retreated and was shot dead as he turned around and moved toward Wilson.
Brown’s death and the exoneration of Wilson three months later by a grand jury sparked the “hands up” gesture now regularly seen at rallies, spawned the Black Lives Matter movement and ignited open public discourse across the nation. The burnt police cars and businesses in Ferguson, the military-like police stance, the National Guard and dozens of resulting arrests were seen live on television around the world.
Peaceful protests and civil disturbances would follow throughout the nation, including in Staten Island, New York, where Eric Brown died after being choked by an officer, and in Baltimore after the death of Freddy Gray in the back of a paddy wagon.
Ferguson’s Police Chief Thomas Jackson stepped down early last year amid a civil rights lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice. The suit claimed that officers were interfering with free expression, blacks were being arrested at alarming rates and cops were stopping black men for traffic violations without legal justification, among other things.
They’re getting someone who is very stable in how he thinks and who will make all the changes necessary.
Former Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa
Two weeks ago, Ferguson agreed to a string of reforms and settled the lawsuit. Now, among other things, the city has agreed to allow videotaped footage when an officer asks for consent to conduct a search and has repealed its jaywalking ordinance.
Moss lived through some of Miami’s most racially troubled days, as a teenager, and throughout his police career. Moss recalled fires burning in Overtown and running for cover as a teen after officers were acquitted on charges of killing Arthur McDuffie, an insurance salesman who led police on a chase on his motorcycle that ended in a crash on the side of Interstate 95 and his beating death.
Almost a decade later in 1989, Moss was policing in Miami when the city erupted again, this time in Overtown after an officer who shot and killed motorcyclist Clement Lloyd was acquitted of using excessive force by a Tampa jury.
“You see things being destroyed,” Moss said last month. “The people hurt the most are not the police or the businesses outside the area. It’s the people who live there.”
Earlier this year, the city of Miami reached a policing agreement with the Justice Department, which had found through an investigation of dozens of police shootings that Miami officers were using excessive force. The feds forced Miami to reform its police training and demanded the city accept a federal monitor for the next several years.
In Miami, Moss oversees a staff that is about the size of Ferguson’s department. Still, his boss in Miami, Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes, said Moss’ biggest adjustment is going to be knowing that the final say is his.
“Everything is on you,” Llanes said. “It’s not something you can prepare for. But I don’t think he’ll have a problem. I’ve seen him work through some pretty stressful situations.”