Ferguson announces changes to policing, courts 'to improve trust'

Acknowledging the complaints of protesters, Ferguson has announced plans for a civilian police oversight board and is restricting how a municipal court generates revenues for the city.

Charlie Riedel/AP/File
Police watch as protesters march for Michael Brown, who was killed by police Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 19, 2014. The Ferguson City Council, set to meet Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014, for the first time since the fatal shooting of Brown, said it plans to establish a review board to help guide the police department and make other changes aimed at improving community relations.

Nearly two weeks of sometimes riotous protests in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., have yielded hard results, including the planned creation of a civilian police oversight board and reforms at a municipal court that targeted poor blacks at least in part to raise revenues for the city.

The measures directly address complaints from protesters that the powers-that-be view blacks as second-class citizens, embodied by the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer.

The decision by city officials to acknowledge the complaints came after the protests and the police response sparked debate and even reforms around the country. In the process, critics say, Ferguson became emblematic of how some American cities and towns “over-police” the black community for dubious reasons, resulting in a damaging, even deadly trust divide between civilians and cops.

“The overall goal of these changes is to improve trust within the community and increase transparency, particularly within Ferguson’s courts and police department,” Councilman Mark Byrne said in a statement. “We want to demonstrate to residents that we take their concerns extremely seriously. That’s why we’re initiating new changes within our local police force and in our courts.”

St. Louis’ unique history of racial segregation and a more immediate frustration with the justice system helped fuel the protests, riots and looting that began shortly after Brown’s death on Aug. 9. Unrest and a tear-gas response by police gripped the city’s West Florissant Avenue for nearly two weeks.

A recent report by ArchCity Defenders, a legal defense group, found that Ferguson police stopped, ticketed, and arrested a disproportionate number of black people, even though statistics showed that white people were more likely to be carrying contraband. 

In a comprehensive report, the Washington Post’s Radley Balko described how many St. Louis area cities and towns, including Ferguson, appear to be using municipal courts, in effect, to shake down poor, black residents for general revenue. In some areas, the result is that someone in nearly every household has an open arrest warrant for nonpayment of fines or for not appearing in court.

Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a Justice Department investigation into “revenue raising on the basis of traffic stops" in Ferguson. The 53-member Ferguson police department has three black officers. Ferguson as a whole is 70 percent black.

On Monday, the City Council said it plans to create a civilian review board for the police, which would have independent power to investigate allegations of rogue policing. Officials also introduced an ordinance that would limit court revenues to 15 percent of the city’s total income and mandate that any extra money would be spent on community projects instead of going into the general fund.

“I’m interested to see what the details are of these things,” Thomas Harvey, the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The spirit of it is fantastic. I’m really happy to see they’re thinking creatively and working with the community to try to do this.”

The distrust between police and poor blacks is hardly unique to Ferguson, and events there have given pause to police chiefs and elected officials across the country. In the wake of Ferguson, the Durham, N.C., city council, for example, ordered racial sensitivity training for its police force to address local complaints about racial enforcement of drug laws.

The events in Ferguson have not gone unnoticed by Congress, either. On Tuesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing to assess the long-running Pentagon practice of sending surplus military gear to police departments both large and small. While intended as terrorism safeguards, that kind of militarization of police forces, critics say, has in some locales helped to create an antagonistic relationship between police and the people they serve.

One Pentagon program has sent more than $5 billion worth of military gear, including assault rifles, armored vehicles, and drones, to local police departments, including the one in Ferguson.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, who is chairing that hearing, said Tuesday that a militarized police force treated protesters in Ferguson like “enemy combatants," which she said they did not deserve.

“I think most Americans were uncomfortable watching a suburban street in St. Louis with vivid images of a war zone,” she said.

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