JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – State Auditor Tom Schweich may have no official duties related to the resolution of the death of Michael Brown, but Schweich does have a unique background in law enforcement that provides a unique perspective on the events in Ferguson over this last week. The Auditor agreed to share his experiences with the Missouri Times this afternoon as a former law enforcement official and also as a citizen of St. Louis County.
In 1999, Schweich became Chief of Staff for Sen. Jack Danforth’s investigation into the 1993 Waco, Texas siege. The independent investigation concluded there was negligent government conduct. Schweich also served with Danforth at the United Nations, working on the Oil for Food investigation. Schweich then became Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Acting Assistant Secretary of State at the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs – a top ranking international law enforcement position at the U.S. State Department. He was then appointed by President George W. Bush as Coordinator for Counternarcotics and Justice Reform in Afghanistan before he was elected Missouri’s state auditor in 2010.
When asked what takeaway he wanted for readers regarding the situation, Schweich said, “Before you make final judgment either way on what happened, wait for the result of the independent investigation that is going on. “
THE MISSOURI TIMES: As a citizen of St. Louis County who has an interesting background in law enforcement and investigations, how do you view the early response from local law enforcement to the Ferguson community’s reaction to the death of Michael Brown?
AUDITOR TOM SCHWEICH: With respect to law enforcement’s response, my first experience in law enforcement was working on the Waco investigation, where there were also allegations that the government had used excessive force on citizens. My first reaction is that St. Louis County police should have had their authority removed earlier by the Governor. It is impossible to investigate yourself and be objective or be perceived to be objective. Ferguson is still part of St. Louis County, so simply removing St. Louis County was probably not the best idea. Bringing in the Highway Patrol – real outsiders – having true independence was the right move that occurred too late, but it was the right move.
TMT: What do you agree and disagree with the most regarding how the Ferguson situation has been handled by local law enforcement?
TS: This applies to both local law enforcement and the community: the only way to get to the bottom of a highly controversial situation, when people have died, is through a completely independent investigation. It really attributes to the consternation that goes on to the violence and to the negative reaction that some people have. What has to happen is a complete and total independent investigation by people who have no interest in the outcome – someone that everyone can trust, someone that will answer the key questions – and then we’ll know who’s at fault, who’s responsible, who was right, who was wrong. That’s what we did in the Waco investigation. There had been lots of local investigations; nobody trusted them. They brought in a complete outside to do a very thorough independent investigation with competent people, independent people, hardworking people who were really committed to getting the right answer. When that report came out, the situation was pretty much resolved because of the independence of the investigation.
What has to happen here is that this investigation be allowed to proceed. I understand the FBI is involved, of course now we have the Highway Patrol involved in maintaining order. That’s the kind of independence that is needed to yield a result that people are satisfied with. Justice needs to be served. If someone needs to be indicted, they’ll be indicted. If someone needs to go to jail, they’ll go to jail. But, you don’t really know any of that until you have a complete and thorough investigation.
TS: This is always an issue for law enforcement: how aggressive do you treat people? When I was doing work in Afghanistan, helping to train the police there, we were very concerned about the militarization of the police. It was very important that we had the trust of the people and that is true whether you are in Afghanistan or Washington, D.C, or Chicago or St. Louis or Ferguson. You’ve got to have a community policing operation that people trust. When you bring in tanks and indiscriminately fire at people, you undermine that confidence. That’s an issue worldwide, not just here. How far do you arm the police so they look like a military than a police force – and it does look like they might have gone too far. But, again, I’m just saying based on what I’m seeing on TV without seeing any results of an independent investigation.
TMT: TIME Magazine equated Ferguson to looking like Iraq in an article days ago, due to the extensive use of Pentagon equipment. Based on your experience with Afghanistan, did TIME get it right?
TS: No. Look, there is a very unfortunate situation involving [the Pentagon equipment], and there were a couple nights that it did look like they were using tanks and heavy equipment against protesters – many of whom were peacefully protesting. But, to try to compare that – the chaos, the mayhem that is going on in Afghanistan on a daily basis – is not an appropriate comparison. I spend a lot of time in Ferguson; it is not too far from where I live. My insurance agent is located there and my wife and I enjoy shopping at some of the antique stores there. To try to suggest somehow that it pertains to Afghanistan is a media hyperbole and it is not helping the situation at all.
TMT: Why do you think that the regional conflict responded so well to Governor Nixon’s actions? What did he do right?
TS: Bringing in the Highway Patrol – again, independence is the key in a situation like this. You take the actors who are involved out of the equation. He did that, he just did it way, way too late.
TMT: How do you see the community changing after such an emotional moment in their history? What can the county, Missouri, and local government’s learn from it?
TS: One thing we need to do is restore; people like me that have always gone to Ferguson to keep going there. We have to show people that this is not Afghanistan or Iraq and ignore the silly media analogies showing that there is violence and mayhem everywhere and remind people that by and large, it is a peaceful community. It is a thriving community. It is a community that people feel comfortable going to. Obviously now, the people of the city have some tending to do and there was obviously some tension in the city that needed to be resolved, but one way that we can synchronize is by continuing to visit the businesses in Ferguson, by continuing to look upon Ferguson as an important part of St. Louis County – as many of us always have.
Rachael Herndon was the editor at The Missouri Times and also produced This Week in Missouri Politics, published Missouri Times Magazine, and co-hosted the #MoLeg podcast. She joined The Missouri Times in 2014, returning to political reporting after working as a campaign and legislative staffer.
Rachael studied at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She lives in Jefferson City with her husband, Brandon, and their two children.