FERGUSON • On Feb. 10, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III attained a dubious distinction: He became the leader of one of just five jurisdictions sued by the Justice Department for a pattern of law enforcement that allegedly violated the Constitution.
If the prospect of that battle bothered him, he didn’t let it show. In fact, his rhetoric resembled the steady beat of a drum: The Justice Department’s demands would bankrupt the municipality. He had seen no evidence of constitutional violations. To fight was less expensive than to surrender.
But about two weeks ago, his stance suddenly softened.
That transformation culminated at a meeting Tuesday when the City Council unanimously accepted an agreement containing hundreds of police and court reforms to resolve the lawsuit.
Knowles echoed some of his most ardent critics as he expressed hope that the agreement, called a consent decree, would make Ferguson a “model for many other communities, not just here in this region, but across the country.”
A month earlier, the council had in effect rejected the same proposal. To explain the reversal, Knowles has repeatedly pointed to a Justice Department letter assuring Ferguson that the costs of the reforms had been overstated.
But that letter was just one occurrence in a complicated chain of events that led to the decree’s being put back on the table.
While Knowles was positioning the city for a lengthy contest in court, two newly elected council members — Wesley Bell and Ella Jones — worked behind the scenes for a resolution.
“I didn’t go to the street and protest,” Jones said of the demonstrations that followed the August 2014 death of Michael Brown. “Somebody had to work their way into the system. I learned a long time ago ... If you want to change the system, you have to be inside the system.”
Their success hinged on an unexpected death, persistent lobbying, a reassuring email and a behind-closed-doors vote to put the consent decree back on the council’s agenda.
In a city that had become the cornerstone for a national debate about race, that secret vote revealed that the council is struggling to bridge a divide of its own.
On one side, four black council members supported reconsidering the agreement. On the other, three white members, including the mayor, opposed it, according to multiple sources.
Knowles soon toned down his posturing — a shift that coincided with the DOJ’s letter and mounting evidence that opponents of the decree had been outmaneuvered.
Brian Fletcher, a former mayor who founded the “I love Ferguson” campaign, was elected to the City Council last year, along with Jones and Bell, shortly after the Justice Department published a report detailing numerous constitutional violations by the city’s police department and court.
The city and the Justice Department entered into months of talks about an agreement to overhaul Ferguson’s criminal justice system. As negotiations concluded, Fletcher worried Ferguson would go bankrupt. On Jan. 10, he died of a heart attack. The fight over replacing him erupted two weeks later.
Two white council members wanted Rob Chabot, a white Ferguson-Florissant School Board member, but the three African-American council members wanted Laverne Mitchom, a retired educator, who is also black.
Although Mitchom had majority support, City Attorney Stephanie Karr said four votes were needed to confirm the nomination. The seat remained vacant.
The city released the proposed consent decree the next day. Estimates from city officials about the cost of enacting the reforms rose, from an initial $800,000 to as much as $3.7 million in the first year.
The higher figure, provided by Ferguson Finance Director Jeffrey Blume, was based on a provision in the agreement that required Ferguson to offer police competitive salaries.
“That created a panic,” Jones said. “How did it go from $800,000 to $3.7 million? That’s creating fear.”
Bell had spent months on a three-member committee — along with Knowles and council member Mark Byrne, who is white — negotiating the agreement with the Justice Department.
As a decision on the decree neared, it was evident how events would play out, Bell said. He anticipated a 3-3 vote with him, Jones and Dwayne James, the other black council member, supporting the decree and white council members Knowles, Byrne and Keith Kallstrom opposing it.
The two most controversial aspects of the decree were the provision about wages and a clause that made the decree apply to any other agency providing policing in Ferguson. But without that clause, Ferguson could circumvent many requirements by disbanding its police department.
Bell believed the city’s best chance at reaching a settlement was a unanimous affirmative vote, rather than a divided negative one. He asked Dan Webb, a lawyer from Chicago hired by Ferguson, to extract some of the agreement’s more troubling provisions, including ones about salaries and other police agencies, and present it to the council, he said.
Jones said she thought it was a bad idea, but Webb told the council that approving a revised version of the decree was the best chance of avoiding a lawsuit.
On Feb. 9, the 18-month anniversary of Brown’s death, Bell read the amendments to an audience of more than 200 people, arguing that they were merely seven changes among hundreds of provisions to which the city had agreed.
The revised decree passed unanimously, but what the council did next would set the stage for Ferguson to eventually adopt the entire agreement.
Jones and Bell had not given up on getting Mitchom on the council and continued to lobby Kallstrom and Byrne.
Mitchom, a retired educator, spent 30 years as a social worker and counselor in St. Louis’ voluntary desegregation program.
“All things considered, she was the best candidate, period,” Bell said. “She’s a teacher, an educator and a sociologist.”
Mitchom also had participated in some of the protests over Brown’s death, and minutes after the council rebuffed the agreement, another unanimous vote made her Ferguson’s newest council member.
A FISSURE APPEARS
At a press conference on Feb. 10, subtle cracks appeared in the city’s united front as officials talked about the Justice Department.
“The ball is in their court,” Knowles said. “If they want to threaten legal action then that’s what they are threatening. ... The assessment is, as it currently stands, that it will cost more to implement the agreement than to fight it in a lawsuit.”
Bell’s remarks were more deferential.
“We just want to also express how much respect we have for the Department of Justice and their team,” he said.
Two hours later, the Justice Department sued the city.
Jones said she grew more uncomfortable with how the council’s decision had unfolded and worried that it had been made under false pretenses.
She called Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, for advice, and then met with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in St. Louis to outline her concerns. Clay, who had initially asked the Justice Department to investigate Ferguson in 2014, said he told Jones to do whatever she needed to rally votes to approve the agreement.
Bell contacted Jared L. Hasten, another lawyer from Webb’s Chicago law firm, and asked him to keep open the dialogue with the Justice Department.
On Feb. 15, Bell was called to a meeting at City Hall to interview attorneys from the law firm Husch Blackwell to help with the lawsuit.
Bell said he was concerned that only Byrne and Knowles were at the meeting. He called Jones and told her to come to City Hall.
“I thought everyone was invited,” Bell said. “At the very least, the council should have known about it ahead of time.”
But after Jones introduced herself to the four or five lawyers present, Knowles told her she wasn’t supposed to be there, Jones said.
“They had no intention of letting us know that they were meeting with a litigation team,” Jones said. “They were going to fight this no matter what, and they were going to come back and sell it to the rest of us.”
THE SPLIT VOTE
On Feb. 22, the council received an email from Hasten, who had spoken with Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. In that conversation, Gupta mentioned a Post-Dispatch article published the day before that enumerated various problems with the city’s $3.7 million estimate.
Gupta said she was willing to provide Ferguson with a letter stating the Justice Department would work with the city on expenses and clarify the terms of the provision regarding police salaries, as long as Ferguson provided assurances that it would approve the decree.
On Feb. 29, the council met in closed session and James, Bell, Jones and Mitchom voted to put the decree on the council’s next agenda. Kallstrom, Byrne and Knowles voted no.
Gupta’s letter arrived by email on March 4. It assured the city that approving the consent decree would resolve the lawsuit and that the Justice Department did not want to bankrupt Ferguson. It also repudiated the city’s interpretation of the salary provision.
After the letter became public, Knowles’ remarks contradicted his opposition to placing the decree on the agenda.
“I think holistically this is the best move forward for the city,” Knowles said after a council meeting earlier this month.
Knowles, who declined to talk to the Post-Dispatch for this story, also emphasized that Gupta had assured Ferguson that the city did not have to increase officers’ salaries.
But Gupta’s letter said the Justice Department had always been clear on that point.
To activists, it seemed that some city officials were saying they now knew that estimates used to induce fear were inflated.
“How did they come to the realization that the numbers they fabricated weren’t true?” said Emily Davis, a Ferguson resident and protester. “The DOJ told them they lied. ... The DOJ said, ‘You had absolutely all the information you needed. You knew better.’ That’s the thing that makes me so angry. It so much further divided the community.”
Bell was hesitant to confirm that the critical vote was split by race, but he acknowledged that it was now an open secret in Ferguson.
“I think this reinforces why diversity is so important,” he said. “African-Americans in general are going to be more sensitive to the seriousness of this problem and the need for these reforms. So it’s much more personal.”
On Tuesday, all traces of the mayor’s combativeness had vanished, as he sided with council members he had previously opposed. After the consent decree was approved, Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., shook Knowles’ hand, put his arm around him and thanked him, an exchange captured in photographs published around the country.