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Ferguson police officer Jamez Knighten visits with his wife Ayanna and daughter Serenidy, 1, during the Ferguson Fourth of July Festival on July 4. Knighten, who joined the department a year and half ago, is one of the several new hires in a department that has experience heavy turnover during the past five years. The department is understaffed with only 37 officers, down from 50.

Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

Since March 2016, the city of Ferguson has been operating under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, entered into after the death of Michael Brown. The quarterly court hearing on Ferguson’s progress occurred July 2.

The consent decree monitor noted that Ferguson had completed its court reforms and that the Missouri Supreme Court was now fulfilling its oversight responsibilities. The monitor complimented Ferguson on updating police policies but noted that Ferguson had failed to achieve its goals in police training and community policing. The monitor noted that there wasn’t much more she could do until the city made more progress.

Left unsaid was why Ferguson is behind: It doesn’t have enough police officers. The Department of Justice assured residents it wasn’t trying to force a purge of the police department, but that’s pretty much what has happened since 2016. Most of the officers from that time are gone. Ferguson has struggled to recruit officers and is currently down 12 from the required 50. Ferguson barely has enough officers to keep its streets patrolled, let alone sending officers for training or to walk neighborhoods.

The consent decree required Ferguson to increase police salaries to raise it to the top 25% for the region and to help in recruiting African American officers. Try as the city has been doing to comply, Ferguson can’t print money. Ferguson passed two tax increases and benefited from a county tax increase, but this was offset by other drops in revenue, including a significant drop in traffic-ticket revenue.

Ferguson got in trouble for ticketing for profit, starting in 2011. Before then, when public safety was the sole focus, traffic enforcement generated about $1.3 million annually for the city. Last year Ferguson received $314,000 from traffic enforcement.

People make themselves feel good by saying they’re against ticket quotas, but try living in a town where they don’t give out enough tickets to enforce basic public safety. Ferguson’s streets are racetracks now. The police department is so short-staffed, officers don’t have time to enforce traffic laws. Ferguson has struggled to give its officers even a 5% raise, and is nowhere near reaching the region’s top 25%.

During negotiations, the Department of Justice tried to force the city to sign the consent decree without disclosing the terms to residents. Ferguson’s leaders refused, forcing Justice officials to publicly release the proposed consent decree. Residents were stunned at how sprawling it was, more appropriate for a city the size of Chicago than a bedroom suburb of 22,000.

Fully satisfying the decree would have required 20% tax increases on Ferguson’s mostly African American, mostly working-class population — the very people the consent decree was supposed to help. Every Ferguson councilperson, African American and white, including now-St. Louis Prosecutor Wesley Bell, initially voted against the proposed consent decree.

Justice officials were shocked — cities don’t say no to the Department of Justice. But by any measure the proposed consent decree was financially untenable for Ferguson. Federal authorities eventually relented and signed a side agreement softening the consent decree. Over and over, Justice officials assured residents that the department wasn’t trying to bankrupt Ferguson and would be flexible if the requirements proved to be unworkable.

Things aren’t working. We need that flexibility now.

Ferguson will spend $300,000 this year to pay the consent-decree monitor and attorney costs, which total 2% of the city’s budget. Everybody involved in the case knows Ferguson won’t have enough officers to satisfy the training and community-policing requirements this year. There won’t be any progress for the monitor to monitor.

But if Ferguson were allowed to self-report for one year instead of paying the monitor, that $300,000 could be used to give every Ferguson police officer a $6,000 raise and significantly boost recruiting. We would have a chance to rebuild our police department, actually implement the training and neighborhood policing requirements and start enforcing traffic laws again.

Justice officials insisted to that the only goal was to see Ferguson succeed. Now is the time to prove it. Ferguson’s best chance of succeeding is by putting every possible dollar into police salaries. If the Justice Department recommends self-monitoring, the judge would likely agree. Let’s hope federal officials live up to the promises they made to the residents of Ferguson.

Blake Ashby is a resident of Ferguson.