The road that led Delrish Moss to the top position of the troubled Ferguson Police Department began with an abusive interaction with a police officer.
In May of 1980, Moss’s native Miami exploded into riots. A jury had acquitted four white police officers of any wrongdoing for the deadly beating of unarmed black insurance salesman Arthur McDuffie. Fires raged, businesses burned. In total, over 600 people were arrested, $100 million in property was damaged, and 18 people died.
It was on one of those dark days, as Moss tells it, when he was walking home from work and a white officer pushed him against a wall, frisked his pockets, and called him an N-word—for seemingly no reason at all—before continuing on.
“I was embarrassed and scared,” Moss, 51, recently told the Miami Herald about the incident. “I decided I needed to become a police officer to teach these people how to treat people."
"Also, I hoped to become his boss and fire the guy," he quipped.
A few years later, Moss would be sworn in as an officer in the City of Miami, where he has served for 32 years, helping with a desperately needed rehaul of the department.
Late last week, he was named the next police chief of Ferguson, Mo., a St. Louis suburb whose 2014 riots over the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown began for many of the same reasons as those in Miami in 1980.
A cousin from the St. Louis region encouraged him to apply for the position, Moss told the black community newspaper The Miami Times last month when it was announced he was a finalist.
“[My cousin] said ‘your perspective is unique,’" Moss said, adding that he filled out the application but "didn’t give it much thought.
He was selected out of 54 applicants from around the country.
In Miami media circles, Moss' years of serving as the head of the police department's communications team have earned him a reputation as a transparent spokesperson who makes a personal investment in reaching out to the community.
“I predict that Ferguson will not have any more issues because this chief of police is going to be talking to every one of the residents," Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado told reporters of Moss at a press conference announcing his new position. "I know that for a fact because this is what he has done in the city of Miami."
Attempts to reach Moss directly were unsuccessful.
In Ferguson, those transparent, media-friendly traits are sorely needed. During the unrest that swept the tiny city in 2014, local officials asked the federal government to impose a no-fly zone over the city, in what was later revealed to be an effort to block media from getting aerial shots of the unfolding scene. Later, a federal report found that the police department utterly failed in communicating with the public during a crucial moment, only worsening tensions and deepening mistrust.
"The police on the scene in Ferguson had no concept of the effect of social media until it was too late, and all they could do was play catch-up with the massive amounts of data being shared,” read the federal report, issued last September. But they didn't even do that effectively. The police department's Twitter account has not been updated since early November of 2014, weeks before a second round of unrest swept across the city. Throughout the rioting, the account sat idle, even as activism was largely playing out on the platform.
Moss, on the other hand, is very active online. The Miami Police Department account, which he has long been tasked with overseeing, regularly sends out press releases, announcements, and rumor control messages.
Partly because of how active he is on social media, Moss says that he has seen a rise in "police bashing" online, ever since what happened in Ferguson following the death of Brown, and in New York City, following the death of Eric Garner. In an interview with a local public radio station, he said he thought long and hard of how to respond to those notions, especially considering that many of the people posting negative things about police officers were also black.
The best way to explain the predicament to his fellow black residents that he came up with: “Saying that all cops are bad based on the actions of a few is as horrible a stereotype as saying all black men are bad because of a few commit crime.”
"In the police department I make sure to bring an African-American point of view to the table," he told the radio station. "But as an African-American, I make sure to bring a law enforcement point of view to the table every chance I get."
When he soon walks through the doors of the Ferguson Police Department, Moss will be entering the center of a national debate of how police can rebuild trust in their communities. The Department of Justice's Ferguson Report, which was written after the unrest of 2014 subsided and has been described as illustrating a police culture both "beyond any of Kafka’s ghastliest nightmares," and "so caustic it reads like an Onion article,” already stands as a landmark document of the new civil rights era. A publisher has even offered it for sale on paperback.
Ferguson's previous police chief Thomas Jackson resigned in the wake of the Department of Justice report. An interim police chief was subsequently hired by the city, but even he resigned earlier than stipulated in his contact.
The city of Ferguson just recently voted to accept a Department of Justice reform deal, after the parties looked to be gearing up for a long legal battle over the overhaul.
At the press conference announcing his impending move, Moss talked about how his experience in Miami, dating back to that early abusive encounter with a police officer, have prepared him to face the challenges he will undoubtedly face in Ferguson.
"Miami has seen its share of a lot of the problems that have happened in Ferguson," he said. "Miami has been under Justice Department review in the past, Miami has had civil unrest in the past, Miami has had a cultural divide in the past that I think we've grown past."
In the last Facebook post he made before news of his move to Ferguson was made, Moss seemed to allude to the Ferguson's muddled past, and its hopefully brighter future.
"Over time I have learned that a certain amount of darkness is needed to truly see the stars," he wrote. "So no matter what you suffer or go through, it is only in this darkness that your light will truly shine."
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.