ST. LOUIS (AP) — Ferguson, Missouri, is making progress toward racial reforms but risks falling behind if additional staff isn’t hired to implement new policies, the court-appointed monitor overseeing the city’s agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice told a federal judge Tuesday.
Monitor Natashia Tidwell, a Boston attorney, told U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry that new police and municipal court policies are being established, but putting change into practice is happening too slowly.
“We have some concerns about the pace of implementations,” Tidwell told the judge.
The shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, by a white Ferguson officer in August 2014 put the St. Louis suburb under Justice Department scrutiny. While the officer, Darren Wilson, was cleared of wrongdoing and resigned in November 2014, a Justice Department investigation raised serious concerns about the way blacks are treated in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb of about 20,000 people, about two-thirds of whom are black.
A consent agreement reached in 2016 requires significant changes that include municipal court reforms, community policing efforts, hiring more minority officers and improved policies in areas such as use of body cameras and search and seizure practices.
The city is relying too much on a single police official and one court employee to implement changes in their departments, Tidwell said. She also cited a need for a community outreach official, citing significant problems in communicating with residents. For example, a town hall meeting with the monitor team Monday night was sparsely attended because most residents didn’t know about it.
Justice Department attorney Jude Volek took the blame for the Monday meeting, saying he failed to send out an email. But activists have cited concerns about meetings going unpublicized and difficulty in obtaining information on progress of reforms.
City Manager De’Carlon Seewood, speaking after the hearing, said he plans to recommend to the city council that a communications director be hired. He said a uniformed officer may be brought on to assist with implementing policy in the police department. A part-time law clerk may fit the need in the court system, he said.
Ferguson’s leadership has taken on a much more diverse look in the 3 1/2 years since Brown’s death. The city council that was mostly white in 2014 is now racially mixed. The white city manager, police chief and city attorney have all been replaced by black men.
A key effort under the consent agreement is an amnesty program for old court cases. Nearly 8,000 unresolved cases filed before Jan. 1, 2014, are being reviewed by Ferguson’s prosecutor. City Attorney Apollo Carey told the judge that of nearly 5,000 cases reviewed so far, 4,665 have been dismissed.
In general, only pre-2014 charges for more serious crimes such as assault, reckless endangerment or drunken driving will be pursued, though the agreement allows the prosecutor discretion to pursue an old case if it is in the interest of public safety.
Carey said the rest of the cases will be reviewed prior to the next status hearing in June.