A police-community standoff from the dog days of the Ferguson unrest in August 2014

Two areas that were part of its agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice have “remained largely stagnant,” according to consent decree monitor Natashia Tidwell: police training and community-police engagement.

In March 2016, the City of Ferguson entered into a consent decree with the DOJ. In that document, Ferguson agreed to overhaul many aspects of the city’s governance, particularly around policing and criminal justice, in order to “ensure protection of the constitutional and other legal rights of all members of the community, improve Ferguson’s ability to effectively prevent crime, enhance both officer and public safety, and increase public confidence in the Ferguson Police Department.” 

Now, four years since the decree was implemented, it is unclear when all 37 provisions it entails will be fully complete. As of last year, the municipality was at least partially in compliance with 36 of them. On Wednesday, February 12, representatives of Hogan Lowell, the law firm which staffs the independent Consent Decree Monitor team held an open meeting where residents gathered to ask how things were progressing.

While police training and community-police engagement were lacking, Tidwell stated in her most recent report on January 31 that most of the court-related provisions of the Consent Decree have been successfully implemented. 

“Significantly, at the close of 2019, the city reported its near total compliance with the Consent Decree’s Comprehensive Amnesty Program (“CAP”),” they announced.

This program has allowed at least 3,000 people to get out from under outstanding warrants for things like traffic violations — the type of fine-based policies that used to fund up to a quarter of the municipality’s budget. With regards to aspects of police department policy such as, for example, maintaining an up-to-date policy manual or creating a committee dedicated to training officers, the work is not yet complete.

For the remainder of the fourth year since the Consent Decree, Ferguson will be pursuing two main goals: first, to incorporate a series of best-methods trainings into police department work, and then to work more seriously on community engagement between the police and the people of Ferguson.

The bulk of the trainings, Tidwell explained, will be short protocol adjustments carried out during roll call. Although she suggested that many of these trainings would be open to the public at the City Council meeting, she was less certain the following day.  

“Whether the police department would invite people to come to roll call to view the new policies, that is their decision to make,” Tidwell said. “Or whether or not, if a new policy is developed and the Civilian Review Board wanted to have its own briefing on a particular policy that’s been implemented, I think there could be a discussion between the CRB and the police department about having a similar briefing for the CRB.”

Jean Franks, a member of the Civilian Review Board, pushed for the CRB to have access to the trainings in order to do their job of handling police complaints.

“We have a role in making sure that the police department understands the policies, is involved with the policies,” Franks said. “How do we understand what they have gotten in the trainings, and what they have not? Because there can be a lot of miscommunication if we’re not included in that actual training. If we get a complaint, if we don’t already understand it, how do we know how to respond?” 

The Consent Decree monitor recommended that the city hire a full-time engagement or outreach coordinator, as this is “critical to not only achieving substantial compliance with the Consent Decree, but to achieving a sustainable, community-oriented approach to policing that fosters trust and transparency within Ferguson.”

That work on outreach, along with the roll-out of the police training plans created this past year, is projected to take up much of the remainder of this fourth year. 

While many residents are frustrated that the city’s compliance with Consent Decree reforms are not progressing fast enough, some members of city government assert that the amount of money required to comply with the decree is so great that the municipality may dissolve. In early January, interim City Manager Jeffrey Blume said that Ferguson is spending so much money – about $1.1 million so far – on complying with the Consent Decree that the city may end up financially insolvent, according to the Associated Press. 

For resident Cassandra Butler, the main question is where the money is going, and whether it’s accomplishing the goals set out in the decree, as she explained in City Council the day before the consent decree monitors’ meeting.

“I see the council continues to make decisions that lead towards furthering efforts of amassing power instead of making the best decisions for the city,” Butler said, “and in that way I see this as being on a trajectory – the council being on a trajectory of trying to bring the future back to the past.”

Tidwell said that her goal is not that at all, but to keep Ferguson moving forward into the future. 

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