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Miami Police Veteran Ready To Lead Ferguson, Mo., Police Department

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Nearly two years after a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. killed an unarmed black teenager, the city has a new police chief. Today is the first day on the job for Delrish Moss. He grew up in Miami and spent his entire career with the police force there, most recently as its spokesperson. When I spoke with Chief Moss earlier today, he told me he chose Ferguson over retiring to the beach partly because the challenges of Ferguson remind him of the problems Miami faced when he was a kid. And he told me those problems helped lead him to become a police officer 32 years ago.

CHIEF DELRISH MOSS: You know, I took the job as a police officer after having a couple of negative experiences with police officers. One was where I was sitting on a bus stop and a police officer comes up and he starts to search my bag. He searches me and he tells me, you N-word shouldn't walk downtown after dark.

SHAPIRO: He used the N-word?

MOSS: He used the N-word. And I had another experience where I was walking down the street and a police officer just pushes me up against a wall, starts to search me and everything else, and then he jumps in his car and he leaves. And he never said a word. Never did anything to restore my dignity, never explained why he treated me in such a fashion. And both of those things actually started my curiosity with the police profession. And I had decided that I needed to become a police officer so that I could provide better services to my community than we seemed to be getting.

SHAPIRO: And you are now taking charge of a police force that has some of those same problems you've described and worse. I mean, the Justice Department found deep-seated patterns of racial discrimination among the Ferguson police. It is a largely white police force. You are black. How do you plan to begin addressing these problems?

MOSS: Well, I think the first thing I need to do is a really comprehensive assessment of all of the things that are happening because the Justice Department has its view and, you know, certainly those are the real stories and experiences of people who live in Ferguson, but there are things here that I need to see for myself in order to get a real grasp of what the challenges are going to be and how to move it forward. You know, everyone thinks they have the silver bullet, if you will, or the magic pill to fix things. But until you're on the ground, you really can't get a full grasp of the direction you need to go in.

SHAPIRO: Having decided to come to Ferguson rather than spend time on the beach in Miami, you must have some sense of what you want to bring to the job and what kinds of changes you want to make. What do you have in mind?

MOSS: Well, there are a few things. I want a police department that's much more community-friendly. I want the community to feel like this is a place of refuge and where they have a stake at what's happening within the police department. This is not us or - this is both and. And I think that the police department has to understand that it's the community that sets its priorities and how you police it. And so I want to make sure that we're much more community-friendly. But we want to be much more open and transparent in terms of how we deliver our services and what people expect from us.

SHAPIRO: Ferguson is in a tough financial position. You don't have a lot of spare money to work with.

MOSS: You know, there's not a lot of money to work with, and that's true. And certainly, there were two tax referendums - one passed, the other didn't. And so that does present some challenges. But I don't think that everything requires money to fix. You know, some basic things like - if you hearken back to my experience with that latter police officer, if he had just taken the time to explain to me why he confronted me the way he did and if he had just taken the time to restore my dignity, my view of that experience would've been wholeheartedly different than it was all these years later where I still don't have answers.

SHAPIRO: It's interesting. Some people having a run-in like that would probably make them want to run as far as they could from the police force, and it made you want to join up. Why is that? What do you think that says about you?

MOSS: Well, I think that the reality is that my community was going to be there. And the other reality was that the police were going to be there, so those services needed to be provided. And I figured that if I wasn't a part of a solution, then I certainly wasn't offering anything. So I decided that I needed to become a police officer to provide my community with better services than they were getting because they were obviously going to get services. I just needed be a part of making sure they were good services.

SHAPIRO: I know this is only day one but so far, how have you been received by the rank-and-file police officers? What are you hearing from them?

MOSS: So far, the rank-and-file police officers are all coming up to me, and obviously they want to know who I am and what I bring to the table. They want to know what their future is with regard to the police department. So it's kind of hard to gauge what that perception or reception is. But from the community, it's been wholeheartedly welcoming. People have been very friendly, and they've offered me lots of help. Now, of course there have been naysayers. There have been some protesters who planned to protest even my swearing-in to let me know that their voices need to be heard. And I - you know what? I respect that wholeheartedly. I need to hear what they have to say because it's only when I listen to them can I start to make some positive change.

SHAPIRO: And how do you plan to do that? Community meetings, town hall gatherings? What's your approach?

MOSS: Actually, all of the above. I mean, everything from staff walks where my staff and my supervisors get out and we knock on doors, and we go house to house and we go business to business and we talk to people. And we find out what their challenges are - not only what their challenges are, but what's your perception of the police department and why? Because I think once we get that full, comprehensive understanding, we can move Ferguson in a really positive direction.

SHAPIRO: Well, Chief Delrish Moss, thanks very much for speaking with us.

MOSS: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Delrish Moss is the new chief of police in Ferguson, Mo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.