Ferguson residents sharply divided in first public forum on proposed consent decree

Feb 3, 2016

When it was his turn to speak about a consent decree that could dramatically shape Ferguson’s future, Gerry Noll acknowledged that the 131-page document was a risk.

The proposed agreement with the Department of Justice would impose major changes to the city’s police department and government. And it would require the city to pay for a monitor to track compliance – which could be very expensive.

Noll conceded that was a heavy burden for Ferguson. But he said it could be worth the toil.

“The consent is an unfunded mandate laid on top of our already huge budget deficit. So there is going to be a risk – but I think it’s a risk worth taking,” Noll said. “I think we have a huge capacity of volunteerism in Ferguson. And if the city and council can draw on that volunteerism, not everything that the consent decree talks about has to be done by somebody that we’re paying.”

Noll’s take on the decree was one of many shared in a city council chamber stuffed to capacity. Turnout for the first of three public forums was so large, that some had to be turned away – which didn’t sit well with those critical of Ferguson’s government.

The ones who did get to speak were sharply divided on what the city should do. Residents such as Mildred Clines said adopting the agreement is crucial for Ferguson to move forward after Michael Brown’s shooting death.

“A lot of people are not going to like this: If Ferguson is going to continue to run as a city violating many of its members’ constitutional rights, then maybe we shouldn’t be a city,” Clines said, eliciting applause from some. “What the DOJ has presented is not punitive demands. It’s constitutional demands.”

Among other things, the decree would dictate how Ferguson’s police department uses force – and would launch a process for reviewing and investigating those incidents. It would also overhaul the city’s municipal codes and require more training for the city’s police officers.

Ferguson resident and activist Tony Rice watches Tuesday night's city council meeting from outside the council chambers. The chambers only allowed for about 120 people, which left dozens outside.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

While an attorney with a law firm hired by Ferguson said the DOJ may help pay for training, it’s not expected to pick up any other costs. In fact, one preliminary estimate from Ferguson’s city manager racked up the yearly price tag at $1.5 million.  

That sober reality was the chief concern for a number of opponents to the decree.

“If you want to see Ferguson wiped off the map, sign this consent decree,” said Blake Ashby. “This consent decree is like signing our own death certificate. If we sign this, Ferguson will be disincorporated in a year and a half.”

(It should be noted, though, that there’s no process in state law that allows charter cities like Ferguson to dissolve – unless they run afoul of a state law capping the percentage of traffic fine revenue cities can keep.)

Attendees listen to speakers at the packed city council meeting.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

John Knowles brought up another problem with the decree: It only applies to Ferguson – not any other St. Louis County city that’s had well-established policing issues.

“This is a countywide problem,” Knowles said. “And it seems like magically, if they make Ferguson better, everyone else is going to start behaving themselves? There’s something inside of me that tells me that’s not going to happen.”

The city will hold two more public forums: one on Saturday and one next Tuesday. If the Ferguson City Council votes to accept the consent decree, it will then go to a federal judge.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III will be one of the members of the council to decide on the agreement. He said there’s a lot to consider – including the cost to the city.

“If you want to see that change happen, we have to be able to actually make it happen,” he added. “There’s no use in signing a decree that you can’t live up to. There’s no use in signing decree that you don’t intend to live up to. We intend to live up to anything we would sign. We intend to continue going forward with these reforms. So that analysis is still pending, obviously.”

Filling Fletcher’s vacancy

The decree wasn’t the only open question that stoked strong passions on Tuesday.

Some members of the crowd reacted angrily to the decision not fill a council seat that became vacant after Brian Fletcher’s Jan. 10 death. Many were upset that the council didn’t seat Laverne Mitchum, who received three out of five votes at last week’s meeting. The council’s three African-American members voted for Mitchum, while the council’s two remaining white members voted for Robert Chabot.

Ferguson resident John Powell holds up a sign referencing a recent vote in which three city council members voted for Laverne Mitchum to fill Brian Fletcher's council seat.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Ferguson’s city attorney contended that four councilmembers needed to vote for Fletcher’s replacement, which has been fiercely disputed by residents like Emily Davis.

“I am calling on all of council to put an end to this mess, to stand up against prejudice and hatred and emphatically appoint the candidate the majority of council endorsed last week,” Davis said.

Instead of taking a vote on Tuesday, the council asked for more applications. That sparked a nearly five-minute back and forth between audience members and the council.

Since Fletcher died on Jan. 10, the council could conceivably pick his replacement next Tuesday. If the council doesn’t act though, it will be up to Knowles to fill the vacancy.

Knowles said said it was difficult for the council to know what the voters would want and decide on their behalf: “It’s an unfortunate reality, but that’s what the charter says. … And everybody has their own different ideas of what would be an ideal candidate. That does not have to indicate some huge divide. We heard last week that every councilmember had a different idea on what makes an ideal candidate.

“We are working toward bringing everybody together on a consensus,” he added. “We are not going to sit here and battle back and forth over how a candidate has to win or lose. We all want to win. We want the community to win. So that’s what the council is doing right now – they’re looking at a candidate that they can all rally behind.”