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Ferguson consent decree may be derailed because of cost

The 131-page document contains a staggering number for reforms for any city, let alone one with a population of 21K

By Stephen Deere
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

FERGUSON — Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III ran a hand over his beard, nodded and blinked, adjusted his glasses, and nodded and blinked again, as he listened to the lengthy recitation of alleged abuses suffered under his city’s police department and court.

It was a Friday afternoon last March, a couple of days after the U.S. Department of Justice had published a 105-page report on the Ferguson Police Department and municipal court, detailing numerous constitutional violations.

Searches lacked reasonable suspicion. Arrests were made without probable cause. Force was used unnecessarily.

City officials had initially met the report with silence, but as public outcry spread, Knowles gave a series of interviews to local and national news outlets. He adopted a seemingly paradoxical position: pledging to make changes, while casting doubt on the report’s veracity — with the occasional hint of contempt.

“In the first conversation we had with the Department of Justice (about the report) ... they wanted to give me a lesson on what the term ‘totality of circumstances’ is,” Knowles said. “I have a criminal justice degree, so I get it.”

Knowles said that the accounts in the report concerned him, but he questioned the frequency with which they occurred.

“We have unsworn statements by individuals who were taken by the Department of Justice,” Knowles said. “Nobody has cross-examined these individuals. There has been no defense of the city in any case.”

Those comments set the stage for the next 11 months, as a three-person negotiating committee embarked on dozens of talks with the Justice Department, amid uninterrupted turmoil: a municipal election, mayoral recall effort, a $2.8 million budget deficit, the death of a councilman, as well as nationwide ridicule for using its police department as a collection agency.

The negotiations produced a 131-page document known as a consent decree, containing a staggering number for reforms for any city, let alone one with a population of 21,000 people.

So far the debate has centered on the agreement’s costs, not its content. The situation touches on a familiar theme for the struggling north St. Louis County municipality: Financial concerns largely drove the alleged transgressions, and now those same considerations are weighing heavily on a decision to make amends.

On Tuesday, the Ferguson City Council is scheduled to vote on the proposal after enduring months of criticism from all angles.

“Everybody wants you to do the right thing,” said Councilman Mark Byrne. “There’s no script for what exactly is the right thing. So you have to accept that it’s an emotional time period for people.”

The Cost Of Paying ‘Competitive’ Police Salaries
Ferguson, which has an annual operating budget of $14.5 million, released the proposal on Jan. 27. Since then, each estimate of the expense of carrying it out has climbed — from yearly costs of $800,000 to $1.5 million to $3.7 million.

That last figure was revealed on Saturday at a public hearing. It includes nearly $1.9 million in salary increases, of which roughly $1 million would go to city employees outside of the police department.

However, the agreement doesn’t specify salary increases. But city officials have interpreted a paragraph in the consent decree requiring police salaries to be among the “most competitive” to mean that they should be in the top quarter among comparable cities.

In the city’s analysis, Ferguson’s police officers would receive 25 percent pay raises, averaging about $12,000 a year.

The city anticipates that if it fails to offer firefighters raises as well, it “will cause a collective bargaining agreement to be imposed to accomplish the same increase,” according to documents obtained by the Post-Dispatch. Pay increases for other employees were also factored into the figures.

“Every other employee in the city will also be looking for a pay increase,” Jeffrey Blume, Ferguson’s finance director, said Saturday. “If that were to come to pass, that would be approximately $1 million.”

Without the pay increases for nonpolice employees, the city estimates the agreement will cost roughly $2.1 million in the first year. The projections drop in the second and third years of the agreement, ranging from $1.8 million to $3 million.

The agreement will span of a minimum of three years, but could last for as many as five.

If the city rejects the proposal on Tuesday, it will almost certainly be sued.

“In my mind, there’s no chance the DOJ will not file a lawsuit,” Dan K. Webb, a Chicago lawyer hired to negotiate with the Justice Department, said Saturday.

Webb predicted the litigation would drag on for three to four years. He guessed legal expenses would be between $4 million to $8 million, but added that he couldn’t say for sure.

The meeting hit many of the same chords as a hearing on the proposal last week. Residents often seemed to base their support or opposition on their own experiences with police — attributed, in some cases, to the color of their skin.

“I don’t care what it costs,” Winfred Cochrell said. “If my taxes go up, they go up. I don’t care. I want to be able to leave my house in the morning and come home at night.”

A Failed Coup, A High-priced Lawyer, And A 16-Hour Day
The city arrived at this precipice after a series of events — beginning with Michael Brown’s death 18 months ago — transformed Ferguson into Rorschach test on race relations and police brutality.

As a result of the March report, three employees involved in sending racist emails were forced out. In addition, the city manager stepped down, as did the municipal judge and Police Chief Thomas Jackson.

A day after Jackson resigned, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar made a play to take over Ferguson’s department.

“As the events precipitated by the Michael Brown shooting continue, it has become clear that despite their best efforts, the Ferguson Police Department does not have the resources or wherewithal to handle the events in a manner that is beneficial to the region,” Belmar wrote in a letter March 12 to Eric Holder, at the time the U.S. attorney general.

Belmar proposed giving Ferguson 57 sworn officers for $5.4 million a year, roughly the same amount the city was paying for its own department, the only caveat being that the new St. Louis County detail would not be subject to the terms and conditions of the Justice Department’s report.

The Justice Department turned down the offer that same day with a letter that said the decision to disband the police department ultimately belonged to Ferguson residents. The agreement the City Council will consider Tuesday includes a provision that ensures the proposal applies to any agency providing police services in Ferguson.

Belmar’s letter and the Justice Department response were obtained Thursday in a public records request.

Later in March, Ferguson hired Webb, a former U.S. attorney, at a rate of $1,335 an hour. His law firm has cost the city about $150,000 — far short of the $500,000 Ferguson budgeted for the negotiations.

The three-person negotiating committee, made up of Knowles, Byrne and Councilman Wesley Bell, began meeting with four Justice Department attorneys in sessions that often lasted all day.

By August, the Justice Department had sent the city its initial proposal, but city leaders believed it would, in the words of the late councilman Brian Fletcher, “financially ruin the city.” So they made a counterproposal.

Byrne recalled one negotiating session that began around 8:30 a.m. and lasted until 1:30 a.m. the next day.

“They were, for all intents and purposes, mostly productive,” Byrne said. “Like any other negotiation, we did get bogged down on certain points.”

Andre Anderson, who served as Ferguson’s interim police chief for five months, said both sides negotiated in good faith and “were committed to doing the right thing, but it would not surprise him if the City Council voted down the agreement.”

“The council members are a reflection of the populace they represent,” Anderson said.

By December, the city and Justice Department had agreed in principle on a proposal, but in a letter that month to the Justice Department, the council made reference to the cost of a federal monitor to oversee the reforms — estimated at $350,000 a year the first year — and said the city needed time for residents to review the agreement.

Differing Estimates, Unforseen Costs
When it was finally released last month, the scope of the decree shocked some residents, even ones who believed the report painted an honest picture of the police and court.

Of the 18 consent decrees the civil rights division of the Justice Department has negotiated since 1994, it’s difficult to find an agreement as extensive as Ferguson’s in a city of similar size.

“A lot of the consent decree has practices and policies that are already in effect, but it piles on things that are going to be so expensive to do and some things that can’t be done,” said Jackson, the former chief.

Byrne said it was not possible to anticipate some of the financial ramifications.

“There are some things in there, that because of this decree, it will cause greater expenses in other areas,” he said, adding that it was impossible to have considered those costs during the discussions with the Justice Department. He declined to be more specific.

Byrne said that the Tuesday deadline for the council to vote has put the city in a bind. If Ferguson had more time, it might allow the city to solicit corporate donations to fund reforms, Byrne said.

“Finances may end up dictating whether or not we can pass it,” Byrne said. “That is just not what we spent the last six or eight months working on.”

The meeting on Saturday lasted for three hours and devolved into shouting, as Knowles read through index cards with questions submitted in advance. One dealt with City Attorney Stephanie Karr’s role in the alleged municipal court abuses.

Knowles looked to other city officials for help.

“Answer that!” someone in the audience yelled.

“Excuse me,” said the mayor. “If you would listen ...”

It took several minutes for Knowles to regain control.

Then, just as he was about to end the meeting, a man stood up, announcing he still had something to say.

“My son had an issue also with police,” the man said.

Knowles started to silence him, but then thought better of it, allowing the man to go on for about a minute.

As he listened, the mayor nodded and blinked, nodded and blinked. His face briefly lost all expression, revealing nothing of how he felt about the interruption — or any other issue.

Copyright 2016 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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