FERGUSON • The price of a proposal from the U.S. Department of Justice to reform this city’s police department and court — estimated as high as $3.7 million in the first year — has rattled many in recent days.
The figure has fueled speculation that city leaders inflated the cost to position themselves to reject the agreement at a meeting Tuesday night, a decision that would almost certainly bring a lawsuit.
But, on the eve of the vote, one councilman, who spent months negotiating the terms in the 131-page consent decree, expressed optimism that Ferguson would avoid an expensive battle with the federal government.
The decree is by all accounts the most extensive ever imposed on a city of Ferguson’s size.
“The council wants to get this done,” said Wesley Bell, who served on a three-member negotiating committee for the city. “We did not get into these negotiations to turn around and have a lawsuit.”
City leaders had long maintained that they would not approve any agreement unless residents first had a chance to review it and offer their thoughts, a rare concession.
“The city fought hard for the public input because we believe it is of utmost importance,” Bell said.
That input — offered at two public hearings last week — has been divided.
Some have argued that approving the decree represents the best chance for the city to heal.
But that debate will likely end at the meeting Tuesday. After a final public hearing, the council is scheduled to vote, a decision that falls on the 18-month anniversary of Michael Brown’s death.
No council members have said how they will vote, and Bell was no exception.
“If I came in with my mind made up,” Bell said, “I am not doing justice to the community engagement process.”
On Monday, the city announced it had moved the location of the 7 p.m. meeting from City Hall to the Ferguson Community Center, at 1050 Smith Avenue, to accommodate the crowd.
Weighing the costs
At a meeting Saturday, Ferguson Finance Director Jeffrey Blume said the cost of the Justice Department proposal could range from $2.1 million to $3.7 million in the first year.
Although the agreement doesn’t specify salary increases, one analysis from the city says that pay for officers would have to rise by 25 percent to meet a provision mandating that salaries are “most competitive” with cities of similar populations.
The $3.7 million figure also includes roughly $1 million in raises for city employees outside of the police department, triggered partly by those workers’ attempts to achieve equal pay.
Last March, the Justice Department released the findings from an investigation sparked by the protests following Brown’s death.
It accused the city’s police and court of numerous constitutional violations — searches without reasonable suspicion, arrests without probable cause and force used unnecessarily.
When Blume announced on Saturday that the decree would raise officers’ pay, some in the audience cheered. But activists were shocked.
“That caught everybody by surprise,” said Tony Rice. “We are going to reward them for bad behavior? That’s almost a total slap in the face.”
A Justice Department spokesman did not answer a question posed in an email about the meaning of the term “most competitive.” The provision, intended to assure that Ferguson can attract quality police, could not be found in a search of other recent consent decrees.
Language in the decree was vague and left room for interpretation, according to a statement from City Manager De’Carlon Seewood. The statement said city officials tried to estimate the cost accurately without influencing the decision.
“If these numbers are inflated, that would be a surprise to me,” Bell said, “and I’m going to want answers.”
As residents have considered the decree, other questions have escalated the tension: Will a person appointed to a vacant council seat be allowed to vote on the agreement? And if so, who will that person be?
About a month ago, Councilman Brian Fletcher, a former Ferguson mayor, died of a heart attack.
The city’s charter stipulates that the remaining council members — excluding the mayor — appoint someone in the event of a vacancy on the six-member board.
If the council doesn’t appoint someone within 30 days, the decision falls to Mayor James Knowles III.
A Jan. 26 vote on Fletcher’s replacement fell along racial lines, with three black council members supporting Laverne Mitchom, a protester, and the two white councilmen supporting, Rob Chabot, a white Ferguson-Florissant School Board member.
But the simple majority was not enough to put Mitchom in the seat, according to City Attorney Stephanie Karr, who advised that four votes were needed. Her statements have since been challenged by the ACLU and other lawyers, who note that the language describing the process never mentions four votes.
Councilman Mark Byrne said he understood why Karr upset people, but her reading of the charter makes sense in light of provisions contained in the document. Passing an ordinance requires four votes, he said. So does a council resolution. As do decisions about spending.
“Why would it be a lesser majority when you are filling a spot for two years?” Byrne said.
At Saturday’s meeting, some of Mitchom’s supporters silently held up three fingers — signifying the three votes cast in her favor.
Ferguson spokesman Jeff Small said the council could appoint someone to the seat on Tuesday and then that person votes on the decree.
The decision about the appointment falls to Knowles on Wednesday, according to the city.
‘You can’t force people’
Opposition to approving the agreement isn’t just about costs.
Some police officials have argued that requirements are simply unworkable.
Former Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said police had already tried to enact changes contained in the consent decree, but faced obstacles.
For example, the decree requires establishing neighborhood associations in the apartment complex where Brown was killed.
“We had been working very hard to do that very thing, but you can’t force people to form an association,” he said.
He added that he had started sending officers to Crisis Intervention Response Training.
“They,” Jackson said of the Justice Department, “seem to ignore that any efforts were being made.”
As the debate over the decree has unfolded, one suggestion is to take a gamble on this year’s presidential election, allowing the Justice Department to sue with the hope a new administration abandons the litigation.
But even if a new president sides with Ferguson, the strategy may not be as beneficial as it appears at first glance. It can take months for a new president to install an attorney general, and then months more to replace the head of the justice department’s civil rights division. There are also limitations that keep the White House from exerting undue influence on department affairs.
However, the risk is worth it to those who believe the decree will crush Ferguson.
“The ONLY hope for Ferguson is to reject the DOJ offer — get sued — and delay in court until the Presidential election,” former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch wrote on Twitter.
His hashtag: “#RollTheDice.”