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Judge hears mixed opinions on Ferguson's compliance with federal consent decree

U.S. Department of Justice attorney Jude Volek, center, listens to activists in the Ferguson community June 22, 2017 after an update on the progress Ferguson is making on mandated changes to its police and courts.
File photo | Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Department of Justice attorney Jude Volek, center, listens to activists in the Ferguson community Thursday after an update on the progress Ferguson is making on mandated changes to its police and courts.

For the first time since it was adopted, Ferguson residents and activists got a chance Thursday to give their take on how the city is doing at making federally mandated changes to its municipal court and police department.

Everyone who spoke appreciated the opportunity to weigh in, but the reviews given to U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry were decidedly mixed. 

Blake Ashby, a Ferguson resident who was skeptical of the need for the decree when it was adopted, told Perry that in his view, things were going well.

"While there certainly have been some bumps in the road, we believe the city is making a good faith effort to improve," he said.

But Keith Rose, a Godfrey, Illinois, resident who is a member of the Ferguson Collaborative, was much less generous in his praise. The city, he said, has missed a number of deadlines that are specifically spelled out in the agreement.

"The concerns aren't just academic," he said. "Real problems still persist because the deadlines haven't been met."

Ashby and a number of other residents were also concerned about the way the Neighborhood Policing Steering Committee is working. The committee is central to providing community input on the policies that the city has to develop as part of the consent decree, which settles a civil rights lawsuit filed in the wake of Michael Brown's August 2014 death at the hands of a white former Ferguson police officer.

Ashby accused Rose and other "outsider" activists of holding the committee hostage, a point they fiercely disputed. All agreed that some work was getting done at the subcommittee level.

The Department of Justice and the city of Ferguson had raised concerns about the steering committee in the past. Jude Volek, a DOJ attorney, said the government was looking at offering its members some mediation assistance, but that it wasn't the government's role to micro-manage the committees. Perry agreed.

Emily Davis, a Ferguson resident and another member of the Ferguson Collaborative, faulted the man overseeing the decree, Clark Ervin, for not being on the ground enough in the city.

"The community is in the dark," she said. "People find out about what's going on because a few people like myself tell them."

Ervin pushed back.

"I've made it a point to to Ferguson as often as the other work allows," he said. "I've spent considerable time in meetings. The office hours are sparsely attended. Tell me how to reach people so they turn out."

The amount of money paid to Ervin and his team also raised some eyebrows. Since August 2016, they have billed the city more than $603,000 — nearly half of the amount budgeted for the monitor over the entire five years of the decree.

Though Ervin, the federal government and the city negotiated that total down, Ferguson resident Cassandra Butler worried that the cost will prove to be a weak link in the "desperately-needed" agreement.

"If a community member, or a council member, or someone is able to make fun of some of the expenses, that destroys support for the consent decree," Butler said.

Perry had nothing but praise for Ervin.

"Everyone is doing what they are supposed to do," she said. "And don't be concerned about the fee agreements — the caps will not be exceeded."

The public comments were part of a regularly scheduled update. Perry said she is considering allowing the public to speak at future hearings.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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