Joseph Rushmore For HuffPost

Ferguson Is Undermining Jeff Sessions' Argument Against DOJ-Led Police Reform

The Trump administration doesn't think the Justice Department should investigate local police departments. But in Ferguson, there's "light at the end of that tunnel.”

FERGUSON, Mo. ― On a warm Wednesday evening here in late August, six minutes from where a Ferguson police officer had shot and killed an unarmed man three years prior, an armed man was pacing in front of his mother’s home, yelling at the cops. His left hand was on a gun in his waistband and his right hand was holding a cellphone.

“F**KING SHOOT ME!” he screamed. “JUST F**KING SHOOT ME!”

The man wanted to provoke a confrontation that is sometimes referred to as “suicide by cop.” Historically speaking, he’d picked the right place for it. A Justice Department investigation released six months after the August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown found the Ferguson police department had a “pattern of insufficient sensitivity to, and training about, the limitations of those with mental health conditions or intellectual disabilities.” Ferguson officers, the feds said, resorted to force against the mentally ill too quickly.

But this night was different. As the agitated man refused to put down his weapon, a commander on the scene came up with a plan. As an officer distracted the distressed man and kept him engaged in conversation, two others snuck around to the back of the house, Tasers drawn. After the man tucked the weapon in his waistband to smoke a cigarette, they made their move. The man heard them coming, and turned toward the approaching officers. One deployed his electronic weapon, and they took him down.

The man’s weapon, as it turned out, was only a pellet gun. According to a police report, he told medics that he was trying to provoke a lethal police response because he was “tired of life and the streets.” He was taken to the hospital where he was involuntarily committed for mental health and substance abuse treatment.

“You don’t hear that,” Ferguson City Manager De’Carlon Seewood said of the man surviving what could have been a deadly encounter with police. “Especially not in St. Louis.”

Something of a natural experiment in police reform is underway in the St. Louis region. The 2014 unrest in Ferguson and the aggressive and unconstitutional police response to protests ushered in a new era of media scrutiny of law enforcement. It also prompted a report from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division excoriating Ferguson over discriminatory and unconstitutional law enforcement practices and its money-gobbling municipal court. For the past year and a half, Ferguson has been operating under a consent decree, an agreement that places the city’s municipal court system and its police department under federal scrutiny.

Under the consent decree agreement with the DOJ, Ferguson must meet a number of benchmarks intended to improve community policing, ensure bias-free practices, protect First Amendment rights, prevent excessive force, recruit a diverse workforce, and increase officer accountability and transparency. 

Meanwhile, in the city of St. Louis and in the dozens of municipalities throughout St. Louis County, law enforcement is operating, essentially, under the status quo, buttressed by political leaders in the state and the knowledge that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is hostile toward opening up any new investigations of unconstitutional practices in local policing. In Ferguson, one of the smallest jurisdictions to face a federal investigation of its policing practices, the question being tested is straightforward: Can federal intervention make local law enforcement better?

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Within Ferguson, even among some original skeptics of the consent decree, the answer is a cautious yes. That’s not to say that, three years after Brown’s shooting, law enforcement in Ferguson is anything close to perfect. The city still has thousands upon thousands of old warrants out against individuals over old municipal court cases it still needs to review to follow through on the consent decree. While other municipalities have settled “debtors’ prison” lawsuits and even agreed to reimburse the people who’d been locked in dirty cages over traffic-related debt, Ferguson is fighting it out in federal court. There are some Ferguson residents who feel they’ve been left in the dark about what’s happening with the consent decree. A few officers who have been accused of excessive force still remain on the Ferguson police force. The department is still a few bodies short of its target size. 

But two-and-a-half years after the initial DOJ report, policing in Ferguson looks better than it does in other parts of the St. Louis region that didn’t come under federal scrutiny. That contrast has recently been on stark display. For more than a month, in fact, the St. Louis region has been grappling with near-daily protests over the not guilty verdict in the trial of Jason Stockley, the white ex-cop was charged with murder in the 2011 killing of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man fleeing a drug stop. Stockley was caught on a dash cam saying he’d “kill this motherfucker” as he and his partner chased Smith, and prosecutors alleged that Stockley planted a weapon on Smith after his death.

Since that not guilty verdict, the police reaction to demonstrations in and around St. Louis has made clear that broader policing reform hasn’t really happened in the region in the years since Brown’s death. If anything, the region’s police officers seem emboldened. The acting police chief in St. Louis proclaimed that officers “owned” the night after cops chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!” as they executed mass arrests that swept up peaceful demonstrators, journalists, an Air Force officer who lived in the neighborhood, and even a black undercover cop whose arrest left him bleeding from the mouth. A police union solicited the harassment of a local businessman who was critical of police tactics. In St. Louis County, officers roughly arrested nearly two dozen activists at a suburban shopping mall. One arrestee, an ordained minister, was choked by a cop and charged with felony assault of an officer ― a “special victim” under Missouri laws ― after she apparently grabbed an officer who had his hands on the neck of her 13-year-old grandson. More than 140 people were arrested in a single night last week after demonstrators blocked a highway. In all, there have been more than 300 protest-related arrests.

Protesters gather outside the Justice Center in St. Louis in September.
Protesters gather outside the Justice Center in St. Louis in September.

Amid the ongoing protests ― which have received scant national attention because the protesters have been largely peaceful and the story has competed for space with hurricanes, a mass shooting and the latest Donald Trump comments ― officials from Ferguson and the Justice Department met behind closed doors to talk over the city’s progress and what still needs to be done. When Ferguson officials appeared in federal court last month for a hearing before the judge overseeing the consent decree, the public face of the city government looked much different than it did at the time of Brown’s death, when leadership in the majority black city was almost entirely white.

Now, a lawyer representing Ferguson was introducing five top city officials in the audience, all of them African-American: the police chief, the police commander, the city manager and two members of the Ferguson City Council. An official from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division was saying the city had made “good faith” efforts to comply with the agreement, made “really incredible progress” on updating use of force policies, taken “proactive steps” to improve officer pay, and brought in a new judge to bring a “fresh approach” to the municipal court.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is generally opposed to federal intervention in local police departments.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is generally opposed to federal intervention in local police departments.

The progress in Ferguson offers a rebuke to the views of Jeff Sessions, who called the Ferguson report anecdotal and believes that DOJ’s Civil Rights Division should focus only on the most outrageous conduct of individual officers and not investigate or fix broader patterns of unconstitutional policing.

Sessions has said consent decrees between the federal government and local law enforcement could amount to “harmful federal intrusion” that could “cost more lives by handcuffing the police instead of criminals” and could “discourage the proactive policing that keeps our cities safe.” Under his leadership, the DOJ unsuccessfully attempted to back out of a deal reached with Baltimore in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray to reform the city’s troubled police department. Sessions has long expressed worry about the impact that consent decrees could have on police officer morale, and said the lawsuits themselves could undermine respect for law enforcement agencies.

“It’s a difficult thing for a city to be sued by the Department of Justice and to be told that your police department is systematically failing to serve the people of the state or the city,” Sessions said at his confirmation hearing in January.

Sgt. Dominica Fuller of the Ferguson Police Department is one of just three black officers who were with the force during the
Sgt. Dominica Fuller of the Ferguson Police Department is one of just three black officers who were with the force during the 2014 unrest who are still with the Ferguson Police Department.

Ferguson Police Sergeant Dominica Fuller agreed that the criticism of her department was a bit tough to absorb. Like many officers, she was initially skeptical of the DOJ’s involvement in her city, which came amid protests during which Fuller was told she’d be raped and kidnapped and that she was a traitor to her race. Fuller is Ferguson’s first black female correctional officer, its first black female police officer, and its first black female sergeant. She’s been working for Ferguson since 1999, and remains loyal to the city that gave her a start in law enforcement. She’s one of just three black officers who were there during the Ferguson unrest who remain employed by the city. As a minority officer with two degrees and experience, she says, she could be making more money elsewhere in the region. But she’s sticking it out. “Why would I abandon them now when they need me the most?” she asks.

In an interview with HuffPost at the Ferguson Police Department, Fuller said she was shocked by the racist emails that the DOJ investigation uncovered from the co-workers she interacted with on a daily basis, including her boss. “It angered me,” Fuller said. “You’re my supervisor, I know you as my supervisor, and then I hear this from the news?” Still, at the time of the DOJ investigation, Fuller didn’t get why her city was singled out for scrutiny from the federal government. She’s a bit defensive when it comes to some of the policing practices that were scrutinized in the DOJ report. Over time, however, she’s seen the value in the process.

“In the beginning, just like a new pair of shoes, they’re sore, they’re getting on your nerves, you’re kind of wondering, am I going to throw them out?” Fuller said. “Well, I think after everybody kind of got a taste and walked in them and got a feel for everything, I think we’re now able to work together and get things done.”

Ella Jones, a member of the Ferguson City Council who was elected after the unrest, said that there had been a lot of progress in the city in the years since Brown was shot. But she’s cognizant that the city needs to do more, and is especially concerned about the citizens who might be living in fear over warrants on outstanding municipal court cases.

“We have so many old cases that need to be cleared up,” says Jones. “That is something Ferguson has to work on and diligently get those cases cleared.”

Ella Jones and Laverne Mitchom are both members of the Ferguson City Council.
Ella Jones and Laverne Mitchom are both members of the Ferguson City Council.

Laverne Mitchom, who gave the Ferguson City Council a black majority for the first time when she was sworn in back in February 2016, said that it’s been a challenge to get citizens to move forward when there are still fundamental disagreements about what happened in the city. Plenty of residents, almost entirely white, couldn’t accept that there were systemic problems with policing in Ferguson. They were adamant that the city had been unfairly maligned after a justifiable shooting.

“They felt like all of this happened to us and it was just a tragic situation. I don’t think they looked at the whole picture,” Mitchom said. But she said the city has been moving forward and was working hard to implement change.

Jones is hopeful that Ferguson can serve as a model police department for others municipalities in the region. “If Ferguson changes, everyone else changes,” she said. City officials appear to be putting the work in ― one of Ferguson’s top commanders, Frank McCall, essentially works on implementing the consent decree full-time. And the process is being overseen by an independent monitor, and a federal judge holds hearings to get an update on the progress

Frank McCall, a police commander in Ferguson, has overseen progress on the consent decree.
Frank McCall, a police commander in Ferguson, has overseen progress on the consent decree.

That judicial oversight offers some protection to the agreement, because it makes it much more difficult for the Trump administration to make drastic changes to the deal or to suddenly back out altogether. Still, the Ferguson agreement is a part of an “ongoing review process” that Sessions ordered earlier this year to ensure such agreements “did not unnecessarily hinder a police department’s ability to manage itself and fight violent crime while protecting civil rights,” according to a Justice Department spokesman.

“We are working cooperatively with Ferguson to achieve compliance and, as is always the goal, to end oversight and monitoring as soon as possible,” DOJ spokesman Ian Prior told HuffPost in a statement. He declined to say whether the DOJ had made any changes in their handling of the Ferguson consent decree.

As for Sgt. Fuller, the veteran Ferguson officer, she thinks the process is headed down the right path.

“You can see the actual forest through the trees,” Fuller said. “You can see there is a light at the end of that tunnel.”

Michael Brown stole a pack of cigarillos from the Ferguson Market Liquor before his 2014 death.
Michael Brown stole a pack of cigarillos from the Ferguson Market Liquor before his 2014 death.

Outside of the Ferguson’s boundaries, a path toward better policing is much harder to discern. The St. Louis County Police Department had been in the midst of a collaborative reform effort led by the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), but Sessions’ DOJ has now effectively killed that initiative, leaving a list of recommended changes unimplemented. St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson requested a federal investigation into how police handled protesters, but it’s extremely unlikely that Civil Rights Division under Sessions will open a broad investigation into the police department’s practices, as it did in Ferguson. And despite some changes, many of the dozens of small municipalities in the region continue to rely heavily on their officers drumming up revenue through tickets and municipal courts.

Thomas Harvey is the co-founder of ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis-based organization that has sued municipalities in the region for policing and court practices the group says amounted to debtors’ prisons. He’s praised DOJ’s work in Ferguson, but he said it was a “real failure” for them not to expand their investigation beyond Ferguson’s city limits. Police departments in the region are “not going to voluntarily change,” Harvey said, and the DOJ’s Ferguson report “allowed a narrative to emerge that it was just that one city.” The white infrastructure in St. Louis, Harvey said, “has been remarkably resilient and seemingly immune from consequences.”

Many of the problems in the region are directly rooted in a history of racism. The fractured governmental structure in St. Louis County ― with dozens of tiny municipalities running their own governments, police departments and court systems ― exists today only because white residents incorporated their own cities in order to keep black people out. Today, that fractured structure makes it difficult to implement change on a wide scale. As a result, the city of St. Louis has been the locus of reformist energies, both because it’s where activists can have the most impact and, simply, where many of them live. But the road to change has been rocky there, too.

St. Louis has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the country. That fact makes police reform particularly difficult, and many politicians are hesitant to say anything that could be portrayed as anti-police. Megan Ellyia Green, a St. Louis alderwoman representing the 15th Ward who has been involved in the protest movement, said that many politicians in St. Louis are fearful of repercussions if they are seen as critical of the police department. “Especially in a high-crime city, I think people are afraid that police won’t police their wards, that they won’t get city services into that area,” Green says.

When there are significant political hurdles to implementing changes to policing, a federal investigation into a law enforcement agency can actually present an opportunity merely by offering up the federal government as a ready-made scapegoat. The feds can force a police department to make changes that would represent career suicide for local politicians.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson speaks at a press conference after the Stockley verdict last month.
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson speaks at a press conference after the Stockley verdict last month.

Perhaps that’s what St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson was thinking when she wrote the U.S. attorney’s office in St. Louis, asking the federal government to investigate the well-documented incidents of excessive force that police inflicted upon demonstrators in the past month. No one really had high expectations that Krewson would serve as an agent of change for policing in St. Louis. She was endorsed by the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association, an organization represented by a flame-throwing former state representative who literally wrote a book about the “war on police” and claimed former President Barack Obama had police blood on his hands. Krewson got into politics 20 years ago, after her husband was killed in an attempted carjacking outside their home.

Krewson won the Democratic primary over St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones, a reform-minded candidate who narrowly lost a race that had three other black candidates, effectively diluting the city’s black vote and sending Krewson to victory. Jones ran on what she called a smart-on-crime policy agenda and believes the city is struggling with crime because it tries to address only the symptoms rather than the underlying causes, like poverty. “We have to be honest with ourselves that what we’re doing is not working,” Jones said in an interview. “There’s that age-old cliche: If you’re able to pick up a check, you’re not going to pick up a gun.”

Now Jones and reform activists are watching as Krewson looks for a new chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, an ongoing search that began that day she took office in April and the former chief resigned. It will be the first time in modern history that the mayor of St. Louis actually gets to pick a police chief.

St Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones and Alderwoman Megan Green at a kickoff event for HuffPost's bus tour last month.
St Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones and Alderwoman Megan Green at a kickoff event for HuffPost's bus tour last month.

The city of St. Louis has had control of its own police force only for four years, since August 2013. For 152 years, Missouri held the reins of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, an arrangement that came about because a slave-owning secessionist governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, didn’t want union supporters in St. Louis in charge of their own police force. (The state had joined the union in 1820 under the Missouri Compromise, whereby, until the Kansas-Nebraska Act three decades later, it remained the only state north of the Mason-Dixon line that could hold slaves.)

Krewson’s pick for police chief will have a major impact on the future of policing in the city, and reformers are keeping a close watch. Last week, Krewson attended a panel at Harris-Stowe State University, a historically black university, to discuss issues such as how protests could be turned into action. It was Krewson’s first public meeting since the verdict last month. She shared the stage with Missouri State Rep. Bruce Franks Jr., a St. Louis battle rapper who got involved in the Ferguson protests and then ran for office and has been on the front lines of the protests since the Stockley verdict last month. It got uncomfortable. 

Krewson claimed the city was “committed” to independent investigations, strengthening the civilian oversight board, and implementing community policing. But she was often shouted down by members of the audience, who chanted demands for the firing of acting St. Louis Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole. O’Toole had said police “owned” the night after his officers conducted a violent mass arrest that swept up even one of his own black undercover cops, leaving him bloodied.

Franks pressed Krewson on why O’Toole was still in charge of the police department on an acting basis, saying the acting chief’s leadership was “detrimental” to the process. Krewson deflected, saying she wouldn’t discuss a personnel matter, which earned her another round of boos from the audience. Krewson wound up speaking very little throughout the night. Afterward, Franks asked demonstrators to gather outside, where they once again took to the streets.

Missouri State Rep. Bruce Franks Jr. leads a protest in St. Louis last month.
Missouri State Rep. Bruce Franks Jr. leads a protest in St. Louis last month.

While Krewson’s election may have been a major disappointment for activists, there were some wins elsewhere in the city government. St. Louis voters last year elected Kim Gardner, the city’s first black circuit attorney and a reform-oriented candidate who called for independent investigations of police shootings. But Gardner, has faced high rates of turnover since she took over the office.

Voters also elected a new sheriff, Vernon Betts, who actually spent some time as a protester on the streets of Ferguson after Brown’s death in 2014. Betts, who spent most of his career as a teacher and in the corporate world, said people would often ask him during the campaign what kind of experience he had in law enforcement. He found the question funny.

“Well, hell, I’ve got a whole lot of experience ― every black man has some experience with law enforcement,” Betts said in an interview. “I’ve had some incidents with law enforcement I didn’t like.”

The position of sheriff is one of the only areas where voters get a direct say in the leadership of a law enforcement organization. But Betts has very limited duties in that role, which in St. Louis is only in charge of court security, the transportation of prisoners, and the serving of court papers.

Betts’ office was also involved in protecting the judge who delivered the verdict in the Stockley case. That doesn’t mean he liked the ruling. Shortly after a judge delivered the not guilty verdict against the former officer last month, HuffPost caught up with Betts by the steps of the courthouse. Betts had been preparing for the protest for days, and the judge’s not guilty verdict was largely anticipated. But he seemed a bit somber now that the verdict actually came down. As a demonstrators took to the streets nearby, Betts said the decision didn’t sit quite right with him.

St Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts was involved in preparations for the Jason Stockley verdict.
St Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts was involved in preparations for the Jason Stockley verdict.

“I don’t feel good about that decision,” he said of the judge’s verdict. “I just don’t know how we come up with this kind of verdict. I feel a little nauseated right now about the whole thing. We live in America, you know racism is … well I better not go there. But I feel terrible.”

Betts, a lifetime St. Louis resident, hoped to make some big changes to what he saw as a “good ol’ boy” system that existed under his predecessor, who ran the office for 28 years. Betts retired after 30 years at an electric company, but he says he got bored and decided to get a job. It was his brother who recommended he become a sheriff’s deputy a few years back, saying it was an easy gig. Betts says he didn’t like what he saw at the office ― the inefficiency, the attitudes, the shades of racism ― and decided he would run for sheriff himself. The former sheriff fired him. Betts lost the election in 2012, but won in 2016.

Now he wants to overhaul the agency into a “for-real sheriff’s department.” But it’s been a challenge. He said he doesn’t have the resources he needs, and is about 20 officers short of the 170 employees he says he should have. The low salaries his office can offer are a major hurdle to getting the quality employees he wants, Betts said.

“My guys start out making $27,000 a year,” Betts said in an interview. “That’s no money. You can’t raise a family on that. Most of them work secondary, everyone’s got a second job.” Some of his employees are jumping to other agencies that can offer better salaries, and morale is low, Betts said. 

The Arch over downtown St Louis.
The Arch over downtown St Louis.

Jones, St. Louis’ treasurer and a former mayoral candidate, said she’s worried that many of the items on the Ferguson Commission report ― a sweeping proposal that came about in the wake of the Ferguson unrest that recommended 189 changes to combat racial inequality in the region ― will go unfulfilled.

“We spent an entire year, an entire public process, to talk about all these things and to put these things in a report with clear calls to action for everybody. Everybody knew what their calls to action were,” Jones said.

“Unfortunately, there are times I feel that that report and others just like it are sitting on a desk and collecting dust, just like the Kerner Commission report back in the day,” she said, referring to the presidential commission that examined the cause of the urban riots of the late 1960s.

The location of Michael Brown's 2014 death in Ferguson.
The location of Michael Brown's 2014 death in Ferguson.

We don’t know much about the armed Ferguson man who wasn’t killed that evening in August. His name was redacted in the court records the city provided, and his condition today isn’t known. But we do know this routine bit of police business was considered remarkable enough to be included in an office-wide email sent by Delrish Moss, the city’s police chief. In the email, he wrote that the plan that night “worked remarkably,” and called it “a fantastic example of leadership, coordination and teamwork, patience, quick thinking and marksmanship.”

It turns out that the officer who brought down the armed man is a new addition to the force, one of the new officers Moss brought aboard after an in-depth process. He’s a young black cop fresh out of the academy named MarQuis Jones. Jones got a chance to talk to the distraught man’s family, and he told them their son was going to be OK, said Fuller, the Ferguson police sergeant. Back at the office, she said, the 23-year-old rookie couldn’t wait to tell everyone what had happened.  

Fuller and Moss said the young cop’s enthusiasm is infectious and that he’s always smiling. “I think he’s got a commercial deal with Colgate,” Moss said. “He’s a personality, he’s brimming over with this enthusiasm and this friendliness.”

This is one way to measure the progress being made in Ferguson under the watch of the federal government ― by the slow accumulation of presences where once there might have been absences. The man on his mom’s front lawn who isn’t dead. The rookie cop with the big grin who is working in a less fraught police department. “He could have went anywhere,” Fuller said, marveling. “He wanted to come here.”

Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter, covering criminal justice, federal law enforcement and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at or on Signal at 202-527-9261.