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Ferguson missed deadlines in consent decree with DOJ

The manager of the city said although they have missed deadlines, they are now moving “in the right direction”


In this Nov. 25, 2014 file photo, police officers watch protesters as smoke fills the streets in Ferguson, Mo.

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File

By Jim Salter and Eric Tucker
Associated Press

FERGUSON, Mo. — Ferguson officials have missed critical deadlines in the early stages of an agreement with the Justice Department, but the manager of the beleaguered Missouri city said the process is now moving “in the right direction.”

Clark Ervin, a Washington lawyer monitoring the consent decree involving the St. Louis suburb that has been under Justice Department scrutiny since the fatal 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, told The Associated Press this week that Ferguson has missed some 120- and 180-day deadlines in crafting new policies and procedures on basic policing practices.

The missed deadlines underscore the challenges police departments can face complying with the sweeping overhauls mandated by the Justice Department, particularly when the troubles are as deeply-rooted as in Ferguson. The progress in Ferguson will be under particular scrutiny given how the city emerged as a flashpoint in the national debate over race and police use of force, and because of the city’s initial resistance last year to signing a federal agreement that local officials feared would be too costly.

“While a number of deadlines have been missed, and deadlines are important, that does not mean that the city is not working hard both in terms of police reform and court reform,” said Ervin, who is responsible for ensuring the city’s compliance with the agreement.

He said the city was working in “good faith” toward meeting the procedures required by the federal government.

“This is difficult work,” Ervin said. “Needless to say, there’s a lot to be done, but progress is being made.”

City Manager De’Carlon Seewood acknowledged that U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry, at a status hearing last month, felt the city was behind. But Seewood said the judge “also recognized we are further ahead than a lot of other places with similar consent decrees.”

“It’s moving and I think we’re moving in the right direction and I see a positive outcome,” Seewood said.

Ervin said one problem early on was that the city did not have a designated employee focused specifically on the consent decree. The city hired Frank McCall, formerly the police chief in neighboring Berkeley, Missouri, in October as a police commander tasked with shepherding the agreement. Ervin, Seewood and Justice Department attorneys are confident that will help expedite the process.

Ervin noted that the city had passed an ordinance to set up a civilian review board to handle allegations of police misconduct. Some revised policies, including on the duty to report use of force, have already been judged to comply with the consent decree. Others, including on accountability, are in the process of being reviewed.

The shooting of Brown, 18, who was black and unarmed by white officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014, resulted in an examination of Ferguson’s criminal justice system that led to a March 2015 Justice Department report citing racial bias. Perry signed off an agreement between the city and the Justice Department last April that called for significant changes in police and court procedures.

Wilson resigned in November 2014, although a St. Louis County grand jury and the Justice Department found no evidence that he committed a crime.

The city’s agreement with the Justice Department, expected to cost about $2.3 million over three years, requires diversity training for officers, body cameras for police and jail workers, dashboard cameras for squad cars, establishment of a civilian police oversight board, municipal court reforms and other changes.

The agreement spelled out a series of deadlines for compliance, including that the city within 120 days develop a process for reporting and investigating use of force incidents and provide crisis intervention training within 180 days to call-takers, dispatchers and their supervisors.

A key provision requires community policing, which relies on officers getting involved in neighborhood groups, meeting with people, and generally being pro-active, rather than simply responding to crime. But the city hasn’t been able to fully implement community policing because the Ferguson Police Department is so short-staffed: Nearly one-third of the 49 police jobs are vacant.

As a result, Seewood said the city has re-prioritized its goals to put police recruitment — with a special focus of bringing in more minority officers — at the top of the list.

“You can do community policing with our current staff, but you can’t do it at the higher level that you want because you are taking care of the day-to-day operations of the police force,” Seewood said. “They’re going on calls, they’re handling those type of services.”

Emily Davis, a member of a consent decree-mandated steering committee tasked with helping the city implement community policing, said she’s been disappointed by the city’s effort so far.

“The city has been so resistant to change because they didn’t believe they’d ever done anything wrong,” Davis said. “Community policing has not gotten implemented the way it needs to be because they’ve been dragging their feet.”

Ervin said Ferguson officials are contemplating ways to free up officers to do more community policing.

Given the negative publicity surrounding the Ferguson Police Department, the city does face challenges in bringing in new officers.

On the other hand, Ervin said, “An officer could look at it as an opportunity to join a police department that’s in the process of reforming itself and is in the national spotlight.”