Four Democratic governors shared their thoughts on policing, prison, and guns. They spoke about violence and tragedy in their own states during a wide-ranging conversation with Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson. Their remarks on criminal justice topics were especially notable.
Governor Nixon spoke about a sobering anniversary — the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the protests that followed. Governors Malloy and Hickenlooper discussed their states’ approaches to guns in the wake of mass shootings at Sandy Hook, Columbine, and Aurora. All four governors discussed interactions with the media, the costs of mass incarceration, and their support for the law enforcement community.
If law enforcement officials were required to wear cameras, would that practice prevent violent interactions? When asked for his opinion, Nixon signaled skeptical support. “If cities want to have body cameras… if they want to pass a bill, I’ll sign it and all that sort of stuff but taking a picture of something bad happening is not a discussion about how to have that not happen,” said the Missouri governor.
With the ubiquity of smart phones, cameras are as close as bystanders’ pockets. Nixon cited the role technology played following Michael Brown’s death. “The biggest change we’ve seen the last few years is everyone is a public figure. And everyone is a reporter. And believe me if we didn’t learn anything from Ferguson, we certainly learned that.”
Nixon stipulates that the presence of cameras would help overturn some convictions — while separately helping police prove cases. Notably, Nixon does not see cameras as a long-term solution to the problem of police-community relations.
Issues with Press Coverage
Immediately following the Ferguson incident, media coverage reported that Governor Nixon was absent and not actively involved in the turmoil that followed. Nixon cites discrepancies between print and TV press coverage and that there is a need for the press to work hard against false narratives and information circulating.
“In our line of work, the press has a very difficult job to do. They don’t have many resources but I do think there is a fundamental difference between the TV folks, who I think are filming a kind of movie for the evening, shall we say, and the print folks that try to get a little closer to right.”
Nixon also described his approach for encouraging accurate coverage by journalists. “The other thing to do different about the press is to try to in some fashion reward with information to some of the more responsible members instead of blanket treating them.”
Universal Background Checks for Gun Purchases
After the Aurora incident, Hickenlooper noted that his state passed gun control measures but did not create substantial change. He believes that universal background checks are necessary and effective for insuring guns are not purchased by individuals who could potentially be dangerous and volatile. Hickenlooper stated that Colorado’s more conservative elected officials did not believe background checks would be beneficial in stopping people who have already been convicted of crimes in obtaining guns. However, Hickenlooper proved that assertion wrong, describing concrete results from checks at the point of purchase.
“Thirty-eight people convicted of homicide tried to buy a gun in 2012 and we stopped them. There were 133 people convicted of sexual assault, there were 1,400 people convicted of robbery, there were… 620 people… with outstanding judicial restraining orders and just in case you don’t think crooks are that stupid 420 people when they came to pick up their gun we arrested them for an outstanding warrant for a violent crime.”
Missouri and Gun Control
Though Nixon believes the gun control debate will gain much attention on the national stage, he does not think the debate has much relevance in the “Show Me State,” Missouri’s nickname. “We [Missourians] always assume that everyone is armed and I’m generally and relatively accurate in that assertion… we took a little different approach in our state. We focused directly on mental health needs… we put 31 mental health liaisons to be direct liaisons between cops and the mental health system throughout the state of Missouri.”
Nixon finds the lack of mental health treatment and services in the US dissatisfying. “We should not miss the disengagement and the inability to agree on gun laws as an excuse not to move forward significant mental health issues that exist and are clear.”
With the one year anniversary of the Ferguson tragedy approaching, Nixon ensured the audience that work will continue on bettering Missouri.
“We’re not going to back away from our challenge here just because the TV cameras left and because it’s not on the front page of every paper saying it’s not a challenge. I’m very proud of my state for not being scared of the most difficult issues we have in this country — cops, police, kids, race, education, poverty, healthcare.”
The talk, “A Conversation with Democratic Governors: Leading the State Level,” occurred on the Aspen Institute stage as part of the McCloskey Speaker Series.