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In the shadow of Michael Brown's killing, Ferguson strikes a new deal

Sweeping policy changes are being planned in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown exposed allegations of widespread, systemic abuses of black residents.
Police officers patrol a street in Ferguson
Police officers patrol a street in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 11, 2014.

With its police department under federal investigation, the Missouri city where Michael Brown was killed plans to establish a warrant recall program, a special docket for defendants who are having trouble paying their outstanding fines, and the creation of a Citizen Review Board. 

City leaders in Ferguson, Missouri plan to roll out the sweeping set of policy proposals during a City Council meeting Tuesday, the first meeting since the killing of the unarmed black teen exposed allegations of police abuses and widespread racial profiling.

The allegations included the excessive use of warrants, fines and fees that ensnared mostly poor, black residents in a sticky criminal justice system in which the city profited greatly. In recent years the city issued more warrants for low-level crimes and traffic offenses than there are people in the city. The many and myriad costs associated with city arrests, borne almost entirely on the city’s poor, resulted in the second largest revenue stream for the city.

The city laid out the new proposal in a release Monday evening, including 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.

“The Council believes that this ordinance sends a clear message that the fines imposed as punishment in the municipal court are not to be viewed as a source of revenue for the city,” the city wrote in a statement announcing the proposed changes.

In the letter, the City Council said it also hopes to send a “clear statement” that will encourage the municipal judge and prosecutor to explore alternative methods of sentencing such as community service.

“The overall goal of these changes is to improve trust within the community and increase transparency, particularly within Ferguson’s courts and police department,” Mark Byrne, a council member from the city’s Ward 1, said in the statement announcing the changes. “We want to demonstrate to residents that we take their concerns extremely seriously. That’s why we’re initiating new changes within our local police force and in our courts.”

Citing security concerns, Ferguson officials late last month postponed what would have been the first city council meeting since Brown's shooting on Aug. 9.

Brown, 18, was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson during an altercation that began with a simple stop but ended with Wilson 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.

Brown’s death sparked local and national outrage. In the days that followed the killing, some protesters rioted and looted. Heavily-armed police officers fired on mostly peaceful protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets.

"The overall goal of these changes is to improve trust within the community and increase transparency, particularly within Ferguson’s courts and police department."'

Many locals said the heavy-handed police response to the protests was indicative of the manner in which they policed Ferguson’s mostly black and poor neighborhoods.

The Department of Justice, which is conducting a parallel investigation into the killing, announced last week that it would also be launching a civil rights investigation into the entire Ferguson Police Department. While African Americans represent about 70% of the city’s residents, the police force and most of the city’s public institutions are run and employed by whites. Of the 53 officers, only three are black.

As part of the call for greater oversight of the department, critics have called for the use of body-worn cameras by police. Last week, the department did just that. A pair of tech companies donated enough body cameras to outfit the entire force. 

Other changes the Council said it will soon be introducing include an ordinance that will repeal the separate offense of “Failure to Appear” in municipal court. In the past, defendants, many who were stopped for minor offenses, would face additional charges or fines for not showing up in court. Another proposed ordinance would get rid of a number of administrative fees “which may impact low-income persons to a greater extent than others.”

The city is also looking to abolish a $25 administrative fee collected to cover the cost of police officers who arrange for the towing of vehicles, and a $50 warrant recall fee and a $15 “notification” fee, which are both associated with municipal failure to appear.

A recent report by ArchCity Defenders shows just how aggressive the city has been at handing out bench warrants to Ferguson residents. According to a recent study by the group, Ferguson’s municipal court issued 32,975 warrants for nonviolent offenses in 2013. That’s about 3 warrants per household. During that same time the city earned about $2.6 million in income from court fines and fees.

According to the statement released Monday night, the municipal judge has already signed an order establishing a special docket for defendants who have difficulty making their payments. The special docket will give certain defendants a chance to talk with the judge and prosecutor about their financial circumstances and the possibility of modifying payment plans and alternative sentences.

“All defendants with outstanding warrants are urged to contact the Municipal Court Clerk to obtain information about having the existing warrant recalled," the statement read.

Ferguson's grassroots coalition, Hands Up United, released a statement late Monday with quotes from activist community members reacting to the city council's proposal.

“The people of Ferguson have spoken and the Ferguson City Council has begun to listen," said Derek Laney, a local organizer, adding, "The organizations in our coalition will be monitoring the implementation of this package. Repealing these fines and fees is important. We must ensure that those currently affected by them are offered real relief."