POLITICS

Ferguson Council Vote Could Help Finally End Predatory Policing

Officers in the majority-black city's overwhelmingly white police department could also get big pay raises.

UPDATE: After a lengthy meeting on Tuesday, members of the Ferguson City Council voted on several changes they wanted to make to the agreement before sending it back to the Justice Department. It was unclear as of Tuesday evening how DOJ officials would respond to the changes; if DOJ declines to allow the city to reopen negotiations, Ferguson will face an expensive lawsuit from the federal government. 

FERGUSON, Mo. -- Eighteen months after an officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, members of the city council will make a decision on Tuesday night that will determine the future of policing and life in this suburb of St. Louis.

Will this majority-black city of 21,000 enter into an agreement with the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division that will overhaul the system of profit-driven practices that the city has relied upon to pay for a police department found to be deeply affected by racial bias? Or will Ferguson get into a lengthy and costly legal battle with the federal government to avoid implementing reforms that the city will likely lose?

Members of the Ferguson City Council -- which is now more diverse than it has ever been in the city's history -- will make the decision at what will likely be a contentious meeting. The key issue is money. The lengthy 131-page draft consent decree between Ferguson and the Justice Department would impose a variety of measures to ensure that the constitutional rights of citizens are not violated. Many of the changes -- like killing a “Manner of Walking” municipal code, which Ferguson police officers have used almost exclusively against black residents -- wouldn’t cost the city anything.

But the agreement, Ferguson officials say, comes with a hefty price tag. They gave a huge range for the cost of implementing it -- from $2.1 million to $3.7 million in the first year, then roughly $1.8 million to $3 million going forward. (It’s important to note here that another city of a similar size implemented reforms at a fraction of the expected costs.)

The agreement would certainly result in significant expenses, especially considering the entire police department budget was around $5 million per year, and the hefty fines and fees the police were bringing in -- once budgeted at over $3 million a year -- meant very little taxpayer money was actually going to paying for policing. But it turns out the single most expensive line in the agreement is probably one that Ferguson police officers like the most: “That the City will offer salaries that will place FPD among the most competitive similarly sized agencies in St. Louis County.”

That sentence, Ferguson officials say, means that officers on the overwhelmingly white police force in the majority black city should receive a 25 percent pay bump, which city officials say would also trigger raises for other Ferguson employees.

Jeffrey Blume, Ferguson’s finance director, raised eyebrows with the estimates he laid out at a meeting here on Saturday, where the racial divide between those supporting and opposing the consent decree was, once again, clear. At an earlier hearing on the agreement, black residents were universally in support of the agreement, while opposition came from white residents.

Blume is not only playing a significant role in determining the costs of the consent decree, but he also played a big role in helping bring about the system that's caused so much tension -- highlighted in DOJ's investigation -- between the police force and the community. The Justice Department’s report references Blume pushing the Ferguson Police Chief to ramp up ticketing as far back at 2010, and pushing a traffic enforcement initiative to “fill the revenue pipeline.” In another report to the Ferguson City Council, Blume praised increased fees that DOJ said “are widely considered abusive and may be unlawful,” including a so-called “failure to appear” fine, and thanked the court clerk, the chief of police and the prosecutor for their “cooperation” in bringing in additional revenue. While the city manager and the police chief are both gone in the fallout of the DOJ report, both Blume and Ferguson prosecutor Stephanie Karr remain.

In estimating what would make Ferguson officer salaries competitive, Blume looked not only to comparable cities in St. Louis County (as the decree would require) but also to neighboring St. Charles City and St. Charles County. Under the plan, Ferguson officers would get raises of roughly $12,000, bringing the average officer salary to around $60,000 in a town where the median household income is around $37,000.

“It’s undefined what the most competitive level is within the consent decree. So, I attempted to compute that,” Blume, who currently makes around $94,000 a year, said on Saturday. “Every other employee in the city will also be looking for a pay increase and if that were to come to pass, that would be approximately $1 million.” 

John Chasnoff, 63, a St. Louis County resident, says he attended the consent decree meeting because he feels all of the region’s residents “have a stake in what’s happening in Ferguson” and encouraged the media and residents to closely examine the financial figures that were mentioned at the meeting on Saturday.

“Look at the numbers that were said today and don’t take them at face value,” Chasnoff said. He called the numbers "very inflammatory and inflated." 

“The decree calls for competitive rates to be given to police officers so we get quality policing. But the city extrapolated from that to say they also need to give raises to the fire department and other city employees. That’s not required in the document. It’s not required by city ordinances. That’s an expense that’s not really accurate to put into the consent decree,” Chasnoff told The Huffington Post.

But Ferguson officials said in a document posted online that the city had always had “salary parity between the Police Department and Fire Department” and that it was in their agreement with the firefighters union. “The creation of a ‘most competitive’ pay rate for the Police Department will cause the same pay rate increase to be extended to the Fire Department,” city officials wrote.

While technically unconnected to the consent decree, Ferguson residents will in the Spring vote on implementing an economic development sales tax, which could bring in an additional $800,000 a year, and an additional property tax of 40 cents per $100 assessed value, which would bring in about $640,000 a year. Homeowners with a house worth about $100,000 would end up paying about $76 a year, which would be a few dollars more each month.

But many local taxpayers in the country would be surprised by how Ferguson’s budget comes together. In Missouri, a constitutional amendment makes it very difficult to raise property taxes, but sales taxes and raised fines and fees are much easier to implement. That ultimately means that the amount of money rich and poor people give to the Ferguson government each year isn’t so far apart, and that poorer residents end up paying a much larger percentage of their income to Ferguson than rich residents do. As The Atlantic explained last year:

Ferguson extracts more revenue from African American renters seeking to heat their homes in the winter, light them after dark, and talk on their cell phones than it does from those who own the homes themselves. Taken together, these regressive taxes account for almost 60 percent of the city’s revenue. In contrast, property taxes -- which are, at least in theory, progressive taxes -- account for just under 12 percent. The vast wealth of the city, scarcely taxed at all, is locked up in property that African Americans were prevented from buying for most of its history.

 

Tiffani Reliford, a 34-year-old who has lived in Ferguson for over 16 years, said she could see the racial divide on display at Saturday's meeting.

“Most people who aren’t for it are white. They don’t get it. They don’t understand,” Reliford said. “It’s like the one guy who was saying the only way you get a ticket is if you did something wrong. Has he not been listening?"

Lawyer Dan Webb, who has been negotiating with the Justice Department on behalf of the City of Ferguson, called the deal “the best we could get.” One resident at the meeting highlighted Webb’s pay, which is $1,335 an hour and has totaled around $150,000 so far.

“He makes in hour what some of your residents make in a month,” a resident told the council.

The reform process with the Justice Department has been a lengthy one, and many in the area worry that the abusive practices in many municipalities in St. Louis County will continue regardless of the change that takes place in Ferguson. 

If the council votes yes, the decree will be filed in a federal court in St. Louis, a process that Webb refers to as “peaceful.” For a city that has seen a lot of unrest and conflict for 18 months, that could be a nice change of pace.

UPDATE: 11:05 p.m. -- After a lengthy meeting on Tuesday, members of the Ferguson City Council voted on several changes they wanted to make to the agreement before sending it back to the Justice Department. The amendments, which appeared to have been prepared before the meeting was underway, were proposed by Wesley Bell. One key provision they want removed from the consent decree is a line that would require competitive salaries for Ferguson police officers. They also wanted to exclude a part of the agreement that would have the agreement apply to any law enforcement agency the city contracted with for policing services in the future.

It was unclear as of Tuesday evening how Justice Department officials would respond to the changes the Ferguson representatives wanted to make to the agreement, which had been negotiated over the course of several months. If DOJ declines to allow the city to reopen negotiations, Ferguson will be facing an expensive lawsuit from the federal government. 

Mariah Stewart reported from Ferguson. Ryan J. Reilly reported from Washington, D.C.

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