I was sworn in as Mayor of Los Angeles about a year after the 1992 Rodney King riots gripped the nation with violent scenes of what became the deadliest and costliest urban riot in modern American history. Over the past month, Ferguson has also experienced upheaval resulting from an explosion of anger built up over many years and unleashed by a terrible incident involving the police.
My task as mayor was to help my city heal — and to do all I could to ensure something like the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots didn't happen again. Borrowing from lessons of the past, I've come up with four ways the leaders and citizens of Ferguson could begin to reform their city, laying the foundation for a better future.
Change the police department
I ran for mayor on the promise of putting 3,000 new police officers on the streets. While we didn't quite reach our goal, we found creative ways to fund the initiative and added more than 2,000 new officers. The lesson for Ferguson: Many of those new LAPD officers were minorities. Currently, only three officers in Ferguson's 53-officer department are African American. An influx of new minority officers would go a long way toward restoring trust in the police department and quelling racial tensions.
Revise the city charter
This document outlines the rules for managing the city, how bureaucrats and city employees work for the public, and how taxpayers can hold city officials accountable. In 1999, my administration undertook a massive overhaul of Los Angeles's outdated city charter, which had last been revised in 1925. The antiquated document resulted in an inefficient city government that made it difficult for citizens to identify who was truly leading. Many small towns like Ferguson are in need of similar charter reform. Small towns elect mayors, but it's often unelected city managers who hold the real power. This relegates the mayor to a figurehead and makes it nearly impossible for residents to hold the local government accountable. As a result, special interests can more easily derail positive reform movements. Handled correctly, charter reform would reposition authority in the hands of an elected mayor and clear the path for real progress. This can be a long and arduous process, but in the case of Los Angeles, it made a huge difference.
Highly visible African American leaders are necessary in Ferguson to organize their communities and in turn, win elections.
Organize the electorate
In 1990, nearly 75 percent of Ferguson's population self-identified as white, and less than 25 percent identified as African American. By 2010, the numbers had flipped; self-identified whites comprised less than 30 percent of the population while African Americans represented nearly 70 percent. Democracy works best when people feel they have a proportional stake in government, yet only 12 percent of the population of Ferguson voted in the last election. This may well have resulted in a local government that fails to reflect the changing population. In Los Angeles, one of my first objectives as mayor was to encourage African American leaders to step into roles of greater visibility and influence, ensuring their voices would be heard. Highly visible African American leaders are necessary in Ferguson to organize their communities and in turn, win elections.
Unleash the private sector
Ferguson must mobilize the economic power of the greater St. Louis business community on its behalf. In the wake of the 1992 riots, we partnered with private businesses to give the hardest-hit neighborhoods a desperately needed facelift and spur economic development. One such project was brought to my desk by Earvin "Magic" Johnson. He wanted to create a movie complex in South Los Angeles, the epicenter of the riots and a place generally associated with crime and poverty. Earvin envisioned African Americans taking an active role in re-imagining their own neighborhoods, and I was eager to pitch in. With the help of city redevelopment funding and Sony, we built Earvin's cutting-edge theater. Not only was it an instant success, it became a model for cities across the country by demonstrating how public/private partnerships can be leveraged to benefit our poorest communities.
There's no easy solution to the challenges facing Ferguson. The underlying problems developed over decades, and it follows that real progress will take time. While Ferguson may not have the resources of LA, change can and will happen if bold leaders approach these challenges with pragmatic, proven strategies that address injustice, empower both elected officials and citizens to act, and harness the economic might of the private sector.
If reform was possible in Los Angeles, a sprawling city of more than 3.5 million people, perhaps Ferguson's 21,000 residents will enjoy a similar transformation much sooner than any of us imagine.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan is chairman of the board for the Inner City Education Foundation and the author of The Mayor: How I Turned Around Los Angeles After Riots, an Earthquake and the O.J. Simpson Murder Trial, available September 30. Follow him on Twitter: @RichardJRiordan