Federal judge approves Ferguson consent decree | St. Louis Public Radio

Federal judge approves Ferguson consent decree

Apr 19, 2016

Updated at 7:40 p.m. with comments from the U.S. Justice Department — Ferguson's police department and municipal courts are officially operating under a consent decree.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry on Tuesday approved the document, settling a federal civil rights lawsuit. Attorneys for both the city of Ferguson and the Department of Justice had asked her to accept the consent decree, which will implement vast changes in the city's municipal code and policing practices.

Perry's decision followed a nearly all-day hearing in which supporters and opponents of the decree presented vastly different pictures of what the agreement would to do the city. She held the fairness hearing at the request of attorneys for the DOJ and Ferguson, saying it was in the interest of justice to hear from the public again. The hearing did not break any new ground.

Jude Volek, the lead attorney for the federal government, called the decree a critical step to ensure that residents have their basic constitutional rights protected. Dan G. Webb, Ferguson's attorney from the Chicago firm of Winston & Strawn, still refused to acknowledge that the conduct cited in the Department of Justice report was illegal. But, he said, it was best for Ferguson if its attention could move to reforms, rather than devising a legal strategy to fight the lawsuit.

Common threads

Mistrust of Ferguson's government officials remains rampant among activists and some residents, and that drove those who spoke in favor of the decree to push for greater community involvement in the monitoring of the settlement.

Mildred Clines, a Ferguson resident of 28 years, speaks at a public hearing on the consent decree in February.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

"If he doesn't believe what's going on, how can he implement this?" resident Mildred Clines said of Mayor James Knowles, who sat impassively in the courtroom during the hearing. It was a complaint echoed by several other members of the Ferguson Collaborative, who said the boards and commissions called for in the decree must be independent.

"We kept trying to reach out to those in power to participate and engage," said Emily Davis, a Ferguson resident and a leader in the Collaborative. "We assume they wanted to change, but it's obvious they don't." She said those in power in the city made no effort to reach out to residents who had been impacted by its racially biased policing and get them involved.

Clines told St. Louis Public Radio in a recent interview that the city can only move forward if new voices are heard.

"If we just stop, everything will just go right back to normal," she said. "We can't have that. We have a new normal now. We can't go backwards."

But other long-time Ferguson residents took a much different view of the process, and what needed to happen next.

"The Department of Justice wants to wipe Ferguson off the map," said Jean Boettcher, who said she was a third-generation Ferguson resident. "This is beyond appropriate." She said Ferguson was far from the worst offender when it came to racially biased policing.

Ferguson resident Blake Ashby voices his opposition to the terms of the consent decree at a public hearing in February.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Blake Ashby, of the group Ferguson Truth, said one paragraph in the consent decree proved that the Justice Department had overreached — 38d, which required the city to change its rules around occupancy permits.

"This has nothing to do with policing," he said. "They proposed changes to expand their powers. They were thinking, 'How do we use this to make radical change?'"

What's next

Perry's ruling starts the clock on deadlines within the decree. The first major focus is the hiring of an independent monitor who will track the city's progress toward compliance. The consent decree will be lifted once Ferguson is in full compliance for two years.

In a statement, Vanita Gupta, the head of the DOJ's civil rights division, said the department is "looking forward to working with the city of Ferguson as it implements the decree and continues the essential work to create a police department that the Constitution requires and that residents deserve." 

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