Ferguson poised to take final vote on federal consent decree | St. Louis Public Radio

Ferguson poised to take final vote on federal consent decree

Mar 9, 2016

The Ferguson City Council appears poised to approve a consent decree with the federal government, which aims to transform the beleaguered city’s police department and government.

It’s a move that could ultimately spare a financially struggling town from costly litigation with the Department of Justice.

Citing cost concerns, the Ferguson City Council placed a number of conditions on the consent decree last monthwhich sparked a Justice Department lawsuit. Some key sticking points included boosting salaries for police officers and whether the consent decree would remain in effect if Ferguson contracted with another police department.

But after the DOJ sent a letter to Ferguson officials last week, the council gave the decree “first reading” on Tuesday to the unamended consent decree. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said the agreement would receive a final vote next week.

“Given that there’s been no vote yet, I don’t want to speak out of turn,” said Knowles, when asked if it was likely that the council would approve the decree next week. “But I think me personally I can tell you: Moving forward on passing the decree at this point is the right move going forward for the city. It allows us to put this lawsuit behind us. It allows us to move forward – both on the reforms, but also on bringing the community together.”

Ferguson residents Susan Ankenbrand, right, and Patricia Cowan hug after Tuesday's city council meeting. The two had not previously known each other. Ankenbrand said she initially opposed the consent decree but now wants the city council to agree to it.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The letter from DOJ Civil Rights Chief Vanita Gupta said that “should the City wish to avoid the litigation process, we submit that the alternative is to sign the agreement as negotiated between parties in good faith – an agreement that provides the framework for the reforms necessary in Ferguson.”

Gupta said the DOJ was willing to work with Ferguson on “the precise contours of implementation of the agreement.” And she said the DOJ “has always been clear that the salary provision neither requires any specific salary increase nor prohibits increases from being implemented over a reasonable time period.”

Knowles said the details in Gupta’s letter are significant. He said document is “a statement from the Department of Justice, which states their position regarding how the consent decree itself would be interpreted.”

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles answers questions from reporters following the meeting.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

“We are going to be moving forward together on the cost issue,” Knowles said. “And we will work together to find additional outside resources to help achieve some of those consent decree items. But also, if that becomes unreasonable in the future, we can talk about and revisit the cost issue. So that’s very, very encouraging I think to the city council.”

Among other things, the consent decree would require Ferguson to change how it trains and administers its police department. And it would have an independent monitor track compliance. If the council approves the decree next week, it would still have to be approved by a federal judge. 

Overwhelming support for the decree

During the council’s public forum, the vast majority of speakers called for the council to approve the decree. That included residents who were harshly critical of the agreement, like Blake Ashby.

“We are thrilled that the city council has managed to get this side letter out of the Department of Justice,” Ashby said. “We think this gives us a spectacular amount of flexibility, and give [Ferguson City Manager De’Carlon Seewood] the flexibility he needs to make this come under budget.”

Linda Lipka, who is running unopposed for a seat on the Ferguson City Council, said it was critical that Ferguson’s incoming police chief have clarity about whether the consent decree will be in place.

Christine Aseffa, center, joins activists and Ferguson residents in a silent demonstration during the meeting to call on council members to agree to the Department of Justice's consent decree.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

“I ask you to go forward,” Lipka said. “It is time for our community to heal. It is time for our community to work together. It is time for those who are the loudest to listen to the rest. Those who weren’t very loud still need to be heard by you as their representatives. And it is time for all of us to come together, put it down, work forward, move forward and give our support for our upcoming police chief so that we can make this a successful community.”

But many speakers like Winfred Cochrell expressed anger that the council got the city into a legal tussle with the DOJ in the first place.

He said it fostered divisions within a community still trying to piece itself together after Michael Brown’s shooting death.

“So stop looking at me and the color of my skin and judging me,” Cochrell said. “Just stop. And let’s figure this out, get it done so we can move on. The world is watching us, not just Missouri. Not just Ferguson. The world is watching. And we’re still B.S.-ing around.”

And while Mildred Clines expressed gratitude to council members for bringing the decree back up, she said there needed to be an awakening of sorts among members of her community.

“I’m tired,” Clines said. “I’m tired of trying to convince certain people in our community that this is how people who look like me have been treated by the police. If you don’t believe it, I don’t care anymore. Because it has happened. And we’re tired of talking about it.

“We’re tired of trying to convince you,” she said. “Just because it hasn’t happened to you, does not mean it hasn’t happened.” 

Attendees listen to public comments from outside the council chambers Tuesday night. The meeting room reached capacity, with more than 100 people in attendance.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio