For years, South Florida reporters have wondered what Delrish Moss would do when he retired from the Miami Police Department. Moss served as a patrol officer and spent several years as a homicide investigator, but he put in the most time as the public information officer and he was the face and voice of the often-troubled department. He was also a native-born son with deep ties to the community. He grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, during the race riots and Cocaine Cowboy crime wave in Miami, and was racially profiled as a young black man.
Telegenic and well-known, would Moss go into politics? Take a job with a local television station? Instead, after 32 years in Miami, he answered the call to become chief of the Ferguson, MO police department, transitioning in May from policing a big city with big city problems to running a department with 44 employees and nationally-known problems.
I recently talked to Moss, now a few months on the job in Ferguson, about what he has learned so far, what he has brought with him from Miami, and what he makes of Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter and the media coverage of both.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So how are you liking Ferguson?
So far, it’s challenging. I like the fact that a lot of people here are committed to a lot of the stuff that we want to do with regard to change. The biggest issue is the fact that a lot of officers are leaving the department much more quickly than normal. That has to do with a lot of things– a couple of years of being down in the dumps, having protests and being told that they are bad cops. That’s caused a lot of people to leave, but that also gives us room to recruit new ones.
Is it hard to recruit to the Ferguson department, after all that’s happened?
It’s not so hard to recruit because it’s Ferguson. Missouri is a tough recruiting area. There are things that are unique to this region. One, in an area that’s smaller than Miami-Dade County, you have 92 municipalities and 60 of those municipalities have police departments. The competition is very stiff there. Not to mention the fact that people aren’t flocking to this job the way they used to.
You watched what happened in Dallas. The police chief got a good response by asking people to apply.
I’m glad he said that and I’m glad they got a lot of applications. We have sort of said the same thing. We posted positions. There are a number of issues here. Even in a city the size of Ferguson, even with applicants I have, I only have a budget for 44 positions. I think it takes more than that. There were 54 [at the department’s height.] Part of it is the fact that the city is in dire straits economically. There was a $2.9 million deficit [this year].
One of the things that came up was that the city was supplementing its budget with court fees. Really it looked like they were going out and arresting people in order to make money. Has that stopped?
It was stopped. And that’s probably one of the underlying reasons that there are some budget issues. But it’s a lot more complicated than it seems. [Over the last two decades,] Ferguson went from being 90 percent white to 67 percent African American. The police department didn’t change rapidly and neither did city government. A lot of that has changed. The city government is now 50 percent African American. City department heads are now 50 percent African American. The city manager is African American. The police chief is African American. There have been a lot of changes very, very quickly.
You grew up in Miami. You saw the riots. It seems like the riots in Ferguson moved the needle.
I think the riots in Ferguson woke up a large part of the city that really was not involved in the process. It’s difficult to have 67 percent African Americans and no African American on the city council without the African American community having some responsibility for that. What I mean is there were people who were not participating in the process. I think the riots actually woke that up. It also exposed a very obvious divide along racial lines and economic lines in the city. Those are things now that, because of the riots, people are working very hard to change.
What was it like living in Miami, in Overtown, during the riots in the ‘80s?
You know, it’s difficult for me to see these as bad times. I had the experience of getting up one morning trying to go to school but I couldn’t get the screen door open because there was a dead body on the porch. I witnessed murders. I also witnessed bad conduct by police. I grew up in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, with the crack epidemic, the Mariel Boatlift, the McDuffie riots. It was much more chaotic then than it is now.
You were in a community that was in transition, and a pretty chaotic transition. Does Ferguson feel like it’s having a similar moment?
Ferguson is having a similar moment. Ferguson is a little different than Overtown. Ferguson actually is a very quiet town. It shuts down at night. One of the bigger issues here is speeding. You have some burglaries to tool sheds and things of that nature. But you don’t have some of the major crime problems that I saw in Miami.
That was one of the reasons those of us who know you were kind of surprised you went to Ferguson. You’re a big city cop. What made you go?
A lot of it had to do with news images and how I remember feeling when I lived in Miami and I saw some of the same news images. I knew that there was a story, a bigger story of people. The riots told the story of buildings burning and cars burning. I felt that, having lived on both sides of the battle lines, as a kid and then as a young adult, both living where the riots took place and being a police officer, I thought maybe that this was a community that could use help from someone who had a unique perspective.
Let’s talk about that. You were, as a kid and probably as a young adult even, racially profiled, weren’t you?
Oh yeah, definitely. As a matter of fact, a lot of that was my motivation for becoming a police officer. I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be a trumpet player and everybody who knew me knew that. But after a couple bad encounters with law enforcement and some of the things that I witnessed, I decided that I had to become a law enforcement officer because the only way to change something is to become a part of it. You talk about the Dallas police chief saying, Don’t just protest. Apply. I heard that call long before he said it.
When you see the media coverage of Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, how do you view both of those?
I think a lot of the media coverage of Black Lives Matter is sort of surface coverage. There would never have been a need to say Black Lives Matter if people didn’t feel that black lives didn’t matter prior to that. I perfectly understand that sense. That’s the dilemma that you face being both black and blue. There’s kind of a feeling that you don’t belong in either community, but you belong to both communities. I perfectly understand the need for Black Lives Matter. But there has to be a much more comprehensive way to look at this as well. We have to look at how we respond to law enforcement and how we respond to authority. And Black Lives Matter also has to look at minority unemployment. It has to look at educational disparities and all these other things.
Police officers have to also get a thicker skin. We have to admit that there are some things that we can do better. If it’s nothing more than just the way we communicate with people. We have to stop taking people who challenge the way we do our job as people who are absolutely opposed to us. People want police. They want police services. They just want to be treated fairly. I think both sides have very valid concerns.
The problem now with media coverage and just the way we consume our news is we go to our own corner and we listen to people who sound like us and look like us and we refuse to hear the voices of the other side.
One of things that has struck me about all of this are the citizen journalists and all the videos, because I’ve covered a lot of police shootings, going back to the early 1990s, and I didn’t have any outside sources of information that were reliable beyond what the police said.
There is a phenomenon, and even in the police community we talk about it, it’s called lawful but awful. There are shootings that are absolutely lawful in how they occur, but did they have to happen? With citizen journalists, with people with video cameras all over, we are going to have to look at the way we do things a lot more from a law enforcement perspective. Because if we lose our legitimacy, we lose our moral authority to do the job. Citizen journalists are good in that they are forcing us to rethink some of our policies and some of our practices.
There’s a downside to that. I had a cousin call me the other day and she was up in arms about a video she saw and she said, “This stuff just keeps happening.” I said, look at the posted date. That was 2014. That whole situation has gone through the courts and been dealt with.
Now with the 24-hour news cycle and social media, there are so many ways these things are getting out and repeated and repeated. That’s causing us to feel that things are a lot worse. It’s making smaller problems seem much larger than they are, so the rush to remedy them happens. A lot of times emotions can kind of cloud the actual facts.
Yes, but then there are cases like the Charles Kinsey case down here – a black man lying on his back with his hands in the air, and I don’t know about you, but I start to think, yes, black men should be terrified of police.
There are still a lot of things about that video that puzzle me. Just from what I’ve seen, and I don’t know all the facts behind it, I don’t see a reason to shoot. I suspect it was probably an accidental discharge. I’m waiting to see how that unfolds. I want to know more about that.
It certainly did not help the argument for police with regard to we’re not just out shooting people. That added fuel to a blazing fire.
Do you think there are some police officers, in the wake of Dallas and Baton Rouge, who are so nervous they have become dangerous?
I think police officers are afraid. I think people are afraid. There’s a fog of fear that exists, where bad things can happen. If the world could step back and take a deep breath and look at these things a little more deliberatively, I think we can come up with much better solutions.
What would you tell journalists today?
We depend on you. Journalists are covered in the Constitution long before the police are ever brought up. It’s much, much more important to the shaping of a democracy. And to whom much is given, much is required. I think if journalists can taper back the rush to be first and get more back to being accurate and putting things in perspective, I think that would help. And it’s not just their fault. They’re competing with social media. Journalists are fighting for their legitimacy with all of these other mediums for getting information.
Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.