Ferguson City Council is Set to Vote on Consent Decree with the Federal Government, Justice for Black People Hangs In the Balance
On the 18-month anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, the Ferguson, Missouri, city council is poised to vote on the consent decree proposal from the U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday night. The 131-page consent decree — described by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as potentially the most sweeping reform package of any city the size of Ferguson — would enact broad reform to an embroiled police department rife with racial bias.
A report released in March 2015 by DOJ found that the city of Ferguson allowed a culture of brutality to permeate the police department, one marked by excessive force, stop and search, and unlawful arrest practices against Black people. Further, the 102-page report concluded that the city government used the police and court system as an ATM machine, in which officials racked up traffic fines and court fees against Black residents. The culture of racial animosity and intolerance by local authorities was evident in an email message disseminated by city officials in which President Obama was depicted as a chimpanzee.
Following a public hearing, the Ferguson city council is expected to vote on the matter. With the death of council member Brian Fletcher, a former mayor, there is speculation as to whether the council will appoint a replacement — likely on racial lines — to participate in the vote.
Oddly, there has been a focus in the media on the potential cost of the consent decree to Ferguson’s coffers — as much as $3.7 million — rather than the intolerable price paid by Ferguson’s Black residents in terms of life and livelihood due to institutional racism. The Post-Dispatch has surmised that the issue of expense is being promoted by city council members in order to thwart the consent decree, thereby forcing the feds to sue Ferguson, or even punting the ball to the next administration. Tim Fitch, the former St. Louis County police chief, is one proponent of this line of reasoning:
The ONLY hope for Ferguson is to reject the DOJ offer – get sued – and delay in court until the Presidential election. #RollTheDice
— Tim Fitch (@ChiefTimFitch) February 6, 2016
The vote is the biggest in that city’s history, notes St. Louis Public Radio, with some residents viewing this as an opportunity to fix inequities in the 20,000-person city, while others treat the decree vote merely as a business decision. Further, the pitfall of the consent decree is that it only applies to Ferguson and not the racially abusive municipalities of the St. Louis metropolitan area, including St. Louis itself. However, there is hope that if implemented, the potentially transformative Ferguson agreement could serve as a model for other towns, cities and law enforcement agencies in the area. Further, some voices may express concern about the cost of the consent decree in a city that is experiencing a budget deficit, while others suggest the city dissolve in the midst of a DOJ agreement. Rejecting the decree could cost Ferguson $4-8 million to fight the federal government in court. According to KMOX, Ferguson is undergoing a $2.8 million budget deficit, with the city looking at layoffs and pay cuts if there are no tax increases.
“Whether that’s through taxes or whether that’s through some sort of service cuts, there will have to be a plan that we can adopt to make this consent decree feasible,” said Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, as St. Louis Public Radio reported. “There’s no use in signing a consent decree that you can’t live up to. And so all of that’s what’s the staff and the council’s working on right now. We want to make sure that is done before any vote or any signature is on any documents.”