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How Ferguson police and courts should change, says new report

The Ferguson Commission, a 16-member panel, released a report Monday on recommending changes to the St. Louis courts and police. 

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    Police and protesters square off outside the Ferguson Police Department, in Ferguson, Mo. on March 11, 2015. Ferguson's new municipal judge Donald McCullin ordered massive changes Monday, Aug. 24, in the city's much-criticized municipal court, a move he said is aimed at restoring confidence in the system and easing the burden on needy defendants. The changes come after a critical U.S. Department of Justice report cited racial profiling among Ferguson police and a municipal court system that often targeted blacks. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
    (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
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A Ferguson reform panel will recommend the consolidation of the St. Louis area’s police departments and municipal courts, according to a local newspaper.

The report from the Ferguson Commission, which has been 10 months in the making, is scheduled to be officially released Monday afternoon after a press conference with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has obtained a copy of the 198-page report, entitled "Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equity."

"The law says all citizens are equal," says the report’s introduction. "But the data says not everyone is treated that way."

The town of Ferguson recently commemorated the death of Michael Brown, an African-American teenager who was shot by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer. Mr. Brown was unarmed at the time. A St. Louis County grand jury and the US Department of Justice declined to prosecute Mr. Wilson, but Brown’s death also turned up worrying systemic issues within the Ferguson municipal government, including a practice between the local police and municipal court to raise revenue for the city by targeting the city’s poorer residents – who are disproportionately African-American – with a harsh regime of fines and fees for routine violations. Many observers have said that the unrest following Brown’s death was fueled by the long-term, simmering resentment over system of court fines. 

In a March report, the US Department of Justices (DOJ) said the Ferguson municipal court "routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees." Another DOJ report found that police actions during the Ferguson protests further antagonized crowds and "violated citizens' rights."

The 16-person commission was established by Governor Nixon last November. In addition to consolidating the courts and police departments, the commission recommends changes covering a range of areas including criminal justice and housing, to education and economics. Suggested reforms include a statewide, publicly accessible database to track police shootings, and developing a statewide plan to deal with mass demonstrations that focuses on preserving life.

The commission puts forth 189 "calls to action," most of which have already been made public

The report calls on St. Louis citizens to not submit to "Ferguson fatigue."

"We believe that if we attempt to skirt the difficult truths, if we try to avoid talking about race, if we stop talking about Ferguson, as many in the region would like us to, then we cannot move forward," the report says.

The municipal court system in the St. Louis metro area has been a particular point of controversy. The Ferguson Municipal Court is one of 83 municipal courts across St. Louis County, many of which only operate part-time and are used as revenue generators for municipalities, similar to how the Ferguson court has been run.

 "The reality is the system is broken, not just in Ferguson but everywhere" in St. Louis County, said Brendan Roediger, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor last month.

Consolidation is a more radical reform proposal. The Municipal Court Improvement Committee, a group of local judges and attorneys, has proposed internal reforms such as capping the amount of revenue a city can generate from court fines.

The report acknowledges that the commission has no power to enact any of the proposals, but Gov. Nixon has said the commission has the full support of his office – though his term expires in 2017.

 "The people of the state of Missouri have given me 488 days to be governor," he told the Post-Dispatch last week. "I'm going to continue to work on these issues. That’s the one thing I can promise is what I’ll do."

While the report is long and dense, Nicole Hudson, a public relations consultant retained by the commission, told the St. Louis newspaper that the commission worked hard to make the report’s verbiage accessible.

And besides speaking plainly, the report also doesn’t make any promises.

"We expect that as we travel, the path will change, and we’ll find ourselves navigating places we couldn’t have imagined," the report says.

"One thing we know for certain: this is not the easy path. That would be avoidance, and avoidance will get us no closer to racial equity."

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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