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Ferguson's monitor fears public tuning out of reform process

FERGUSON, MO – The monitor overseeing the federal consent agreement requiring police and court changes in Ferguson is seeing troubling signs that residents are increasingly disengaged in the reform process.

Just 22 people showed up Wednesday for a town hall-style meeting with the monitor team at the Ferguson Community Center. There was a time such a meeting would have drawn a capacity crowd in the St. Louis suburb, where a white officer's fatal shooting of Michael Brown — a black and unarmed 18-year-old — in August 2014 helped spur the Black Lives Matter movement.

Monitor Natashia Tidwell also expressed concern about the paltry response to a community survey that is a key component of the agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the city. Just 128 people filled out the survey, and of them, just 12.5% identified as black in a city of 20,000 residents, two-thirds of whom are African-American.

“This doesn’t work without community engagement and involvement,” said Tidwell, an attorney from Boston.

Five years ago, a St. Louis County grand jury and the U.S. Justice Department both found no evidence to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown following a street confrontation. But the shooting led to months of often violent protests and led to Justice Department scrutiny of how Ferguson’s police department and court system treated blacks.

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. A monitor team, led by Tidwell, watches over the process and reports quarterly to U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry. The next quarterly update is in January.

Tidwell said progress has been slower than hoped, in part because of several personnel changes within the city. Ferguson’s police chief resigned late last year, the city manager resigned in February and a key court official left her post this year.

“Anybody can see that it has not moved with the speed that folks would have liked,” Tidwell said.

But she was optimistic, now that Ferguson recently hired its first full-time consent decree coordinator. The city also hired a new clerk to help the municipal court fully implement an amnesty program that forgives thousands of unresolved cases. The program was deemed necessary after the Justice Department found that Ferguson’s court system generated millions of dollars in revenue largely on the backs of poor and minority residents through fines, court costs and other fees.

And, the city hired a contractor to implement data collection practices that will provide better information about traffic stops, arrests and other information.

“There’s a renewed energy to the process, and we’re all really thrilled about that,” Tidwell said.

Still, the declining community involvement is hard to ignore. In the first few years after Brown’s death, people were often turned away from City Council meetings because the chamber was full to capacity. Rallies and protests remained common.

“I’m feeling a sense in the community of a lack of involvement and a lack of interest at this point,” activist John Chasnoff, who is white, told Tidwell. “If the community is not engaged and is lost in the process, it’s going to be hard to get that back.”

Ferguson resident Laverne Mitchom, 68, who is black, believes that most residents feel their voices don’t matter.

“I think people are frustrated and wondering if it’s really going to do any good,” Mitchom said. “People feel like, ‘Ah, they’re going to do what they want to do anyway.’ But their participation does matter.”

A provision of the consent agreement calls for engaging people most impacted by police and court practices. In the case of Ferguson, that means getting input from black residents.

Tidwell said residents this year were contacted by email, signs were posted at public buildings, and city leaders encouraged participation through word of mouth. Efforts will be expanded to reach more residents, especially black residents, when the 2020 survey is conducted, she said.