Ferguson and Justice Department Agreement Lands With Divided City Council

The consent decree faces a hurdle in the wake of a council member’s death.
A protester calls to police outside the municipal court in Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo: Rick Wilking/Reuters)
Jan 28, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Ferguson, Missouri, was rocked by protests after the shooting death of black teen Michael Brown by a police officer in 2014 and became a focal point in the national debate about race, injustice, and the turbulent relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

Approval of a new federal consent decree could offer a hint of progress for the fraught city, but disagreements among members of its city council about replacing a member who died could hold up the process—and reignite racial tensions.

After an exhaustive months-long look into Ferguson’s troubled criminal justice system, federal officials and city leaders announced on Wednesday that they had reached a reform agreement. In March and June last year, the Justice Department issued scathing reports documenting a broken municipal court system that was profiting off Ferguson’s poorest community members and a deep lack of trust in the police department. The federal consent decree puts in place policies that aim to end controversial police practices and restore residents’ faith in the local court system.

The next steps in the reform process: public feedback and review of the consent decree by the Ferguson City Council.

“I just want to listen to the citizens before I say I fully back this agreement,” Council Member Mark Byrne told The New York Times. “It’s going to be the citizens of this city that are not just going to have to bear the costs, but are going to have to get behind it.”

However, racial divisions on the council have become a hurdle.

In April, Ferguson voters changed the face of the city council by electing two black representatives—tripling the number of black council members. For the first time, the majority black city had three black and three white council members. Then Council Member Brian Fletcher, who was white, died of a heart attack in early January. Now, the three black council members are supporting a black woman, while the two white representatives have nominated a white man, St. Louis Today reports.

According to the city attorney, four votes are required to elect the new member. The vote on Tuesday night split along racial lines and left open the question of whether or not the council members can come to an agreement. If the council members haven’t elected someone within 30 days, the mayor will appoint the new member.

The white candidate, Rob Chabot, is unpopular with some black residents because he voted in 2013 to remove a black school superintendent without explanation.

“I want to be part of the healing and making this community one Ferguson,” Laverne Mitchom, the black candidate, told St. Louis Today, adding that the split vote “doesn’t look good for race relations.”