Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson resigns

Mayor: ‘We are continuing to find out where the breakdown was’

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson will receive a year's severance pay. His last day is March 19. (Reuters File/Lucas Jackson)
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson will receive a year's severance pay. His last day is March 19. (Reuters File/Lucas Jackson)

Thomas Jackson, the embattled police chief of Ferguson, Mo., resigned on Wednesday, a week after federal investigators painted his department as having a racial bias and routinely violating resident's constitutional rights.

The 57-year-old commander has been the frequent target of critics since Ferguson landed in the national spotlight last August when a white patrol officer fatally shot an unarmed black teen.

“It is with profound sadness that I am announcing I am stepping down,” Jackson wrote in a letter to city leaders.

By nightfall, news of Jackson's exit brought demonstrators back to Ferguson.

“It's incredible out here. It feels like the old days of protest,” DeRay Mckesson said on Twitter. “There are a lot of new faces out here. And that's great. The movement lives as it grows.”

Mckeeson, one of the more prominent voices of last year’s Ferguson activists, also tweeted a photo of demonstrators hanging a “Racism Lives Here” sign on the police department’s flagpole.

“It’s wild just walking on the Ferguson PD lot like this,” Mckeeson wrote. “Months ago, they would've had 100 riot police out here. How times have changed.”

The chief's last day will be March 19. Mayor James Knowles said city officials want Jackson to help with a transition team, a move that drew negative reaction on social media from detractors who thought Jackson should have been ousted months ago.

Mayor James Knowles says he will not resign. “Somebody is going to have to be here to run the ship.” (Reuters/Kate Munsch)
Mayor James Knowles says he will not resign. “Somebody is going to have to be here to run the ship.” (Reuters/Kate Munsch)

“He's staying around,” Knowles said at an afternoon news conference. “We can’t have everybody just up and leave. The city has to function; the police department has to function.”

Jackson, who has led the suburban St. Louis force for five years, did not attend a news conference announcing his departure.

Knowles called the chief an “honorable man” whose decision came after “a lot of soul searching.”

“It's hard for us to have him leave, but he felt this was the best way forward.” Knowles said. “He feels it's what's best for the city and also the men and women who served under him. He has been committed to keeping the police department, and that was also part of his thought process.”

Jackson is the sixth Ferguson employee to leave in the wake of last week's critical Department of Justice report that accused the city of racist police and court practices. City Manager John Shaw, the chief's boss and a big Jackson supporter, resigned on Tuesday.

Both men were prominently named throughout the DOJ's 100-page report. Investigators faulted top officials for encouraging police to aggressively ticket motorists many of them African-Americans as a means to generate money.

In one example, the DOJ highlighted Shaw and Jackson's email exchange about increased court revenue for March 2011 being more than $179,000.

“Beat our next biggest month in the last four years by over $17,000,” Jackson wrote.

“Wonderful!” the city manager replied.

Knowles told Reuters last week that the DOJ report is troubling, “but there are also things that are an overreach.”

On Wednesday, he cautioned not to read too much into Jackson’s resignation.

“We are continuing to find out where the breakdown was,” the mayor said. “But being the honorable man he is, he decided the way to move forward is with someone else. That's not to say that's an indication of anything at this point.”

Ferguson officials will meet with the Justice Department in the coming weeks to negotiate how to make reforms. The federal government can sue and force reform if the sides can’t agree. Knowles has said the city won't settle with the DOJ if the negotiations don't lead to “mutual satisfaction.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters last week that the federal government would dismantle the Ferguson Police Department if necessary. One option would be for the St. Louis County Police Department to serve Ferguson, a town of 21,000.

Lt. Col. Al Eickhoff will serve as interim chief while Ferguson conducts a national search for Jackson's replacement. Knowles said it's a priority not to lose the police force.

“The city remains committed to addressing each item in the report,” he said. “The city looks to become example of how a community can move forward in the face of adversity.”

Michael Brown and former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. (Facebook)
Michael Brown and former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. (Facebook)

The shooting death of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson last August sparked months of protest and national debate about race and police behavior. Many protestors said they were fueled in part by how Jackson handled the tragedy. Ferguson police released very few details of the shooting, including the officer’s name, for nearly a week. At a news conference to announce Wilson's name, Jackson also gave reporters surveillance video of Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store prior to the fatal encounter.

After six weeks of not publicly addressing the Brown family, Jackson issued a two-and-a-half-minute video apology recorded and released by a national public relations agency hired by the city.

“Overnight I went from being a small-town police chief to being a part of a conversation about racism, equality and the role of policing in that conversation,” Jackson says on the video. “As chief of police and as a resident, I want to be part of that conversation. I also want to be part of the solution.”

Jackson, a police officer in Missouri for more than three decades, will receive another year's salary (about $96,000) and insurance benefits as severance.

Federal and state investigations into Brown's death cleared Wilson. Officials said physical evidence and reliable witness accounts support the officer's version of what happened. Wilson told investigators that Brown attacked him and that he was in fear of his life when he shot the teen multiple times in the middle of the street on Aug. 9. The officer resigned from the department after a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict him in late November.

After announcing Jackson’s exit, reporters asked the mayor about repeated calls for him to step down too.

“Somebody is going to have to be here to run the ship,” said Knowles, an officeholder in Ferguson for nearly a decade.

Jason Sickles is a reporter for Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).