FERGUSON, Missouri - City leaders hoped to use the first public city council meeting since last month’s killing of Michael Brown as a platform to layout a host of new ordinances aimed at healing this broken city.
Instead they were met with about three hours of testimony that spoke to residents shattered confidence in the city’s nearly all-white leadership and the investigation into Brown’s death.
Brown, 18, was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9 during a confrontation that began with a simple stop but ended with Wilson allegedly firing nearly a dozen shots at Brown, some as the teen attempted to flee, according to witnesses. An autopsy performed at the request of the family found Brown was struck with at least six shots, including two to the head.
The police say Wilson shot Brown after the teen attempted to grab the officer’s gun. Several eyewitnesses say Wilson shot Brown as he ran away and continued firing as Brown turned with his hands up in surrender.
Wilson remains free as the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office presents a grand jury with evidence in the case.
The tone for Tuesday night’s meeting at the Greater Grace Church was set early, as the conclusion of the Pledge of Allegiance sparked a rumbling chorus of “Justice for all.”
As Mayor James Knowles and the City Council attempted to tend to the mundane business of building and tax code, people in the audience shouted, “What about Mike Brown!?”
Minutes later others stood up and shouted, “Shut it down!”
During the comment portion of the meeting, residents stood in long lines behind two microphones set up in the aisles. When asked by the mayor to give their names and addresses for the record and per council meeting protocol, several gave their names as Mike Brown and their addresses as “Ground Zero.”
Others demanded answers in the investigation, including whether or not Wilson was still on the city’s payroll, while others asked if the mayor had requested an arrest in the case from St. Louis County police, who took over the case from its outset.
The rancor overshadowed a slew of changes the council has proposed to municipal court code aimed at easing the burden of exorbitant fines and fees associated with warrants, arrests and court costs.
The city laid out the new proposal in a release issued Monday evening, including a warrant recall program and a plan to restructure the way it uses the fines and fees it collects from arrests. The city council is planning to draft a new ordinance that budgeted court fine revenues remain at or below 15% of the city’s revenue and that any excess revenue is earmarked for community projects. The funds are currently fed into Ferguson’s general purpose fund.
Other changes the Council said it will soon be introducing include an ordinance that would eliminate the common offense of failing to appear in court for minor offenses and the formation of a Citizens Review Board for the police department.
Another proposed ordinance would get rid of a number of administrative fees “which may impact low-income persons to a greater extent than others.” To that, the city is also looking to abolish various administrative and warrant fees.
The changes are the first concrete steps taken since Brown’s killing a month ago sparked outrage and greater scrutiny into what many described as a system of cops and courts that ensnared mostly poor, black residents in a web of fines and fees to the benefit of the city’s coffers.
Last year the city collected more than $2 million in such costs, its second highest revenue stream. In recent years the city issued more warrants for low-level crimes and traffic offenses than there are people in the city. Black motorists were also stopped twice as much as white motorists despite whites being more likely to be caught with contraband, according to a 2013 report by the state attorney general’s office.
Before the meeting, lawyer Brendan Roediger, who has been working with local activists on proposals to present to city officials that include a warrant amnesty components, said the council changes might be made in good faith but in some aspects shouldn’t be applauded.
“Many of the warrant fees were illegal anyway,” Roediger said. “I’m not sure how much the council should be congratulated for reversing them.”
The real substantive change, he said, is the 15% cap on how much fine generated income could be added to the city’s general purpose fund.
Among the audience at Tuesday’s meeting were activists, residents, victims of alleged police abuses and clergy.
Kimberly Gardner, a local attorney, said the proposed ordinance changes are a good start but not enough to rectify all the systemic issues facing many residents.
She called the current system a “vicious cycle” where some have to choose whether to feed their families or pay court fines.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction but we have to do more. But until we talk about race and race relationships in all facets, I think people are not going to be satisfied. People have mistrust in the community and they have mistrust with how things are going,” she said. “We need more diversity in the police department, the court system. And until we talk about that people are going to mistrust the system.”
Anthony Gray, an attorney for Brown’s family, said it’s too early to tell what impact these changes might have, but he’s hopeful.
“We can only be optimistic and very hopeful that whatever they do may make a positive change. I’m optimistic but I’m not stupid,” he told msnbc. “At this pace that were going right now I don’t see the change coming fast enough, quick enough or effective enough to mean meaningful change.”
Taurean Russell, a resident turned activist, said he’s been burdened by excessive warrants and fees and that it has cost him job opportunities. He said the time for talking at meetings is over and that he’s leading other residents into ramped up action against the city.
On Wednesday he said he’d be joining others in blockading a local highway. During the comment section of the council meeting, he warned the mayor that he and others would be watching him and that they’d be disrupting his life as well as his family and loved ones.
“What they’re offering ain’t enough,” Russell said in the hall outside of the sanctuary where the meeting was being held. “We set the rules for now on. We’re trying to be considerate, issuing press releases and letting them know exactly what we plan on doing. We’re being nice. But the time for being nice is over.”