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Ferguson City Council Faces Wave Of Criticism During First Meeting Since Brown's Death

(Updated 9 p.m. on Wednesday with comments from Mayor Knowles)

When Louis Wilson spoke at a Ferguson City Council meeting -- a meeting filled with rousing moments and white-hot anger -- he turned his attention directly to Mayor James Knowles.

The 15-year resident of Ferguson came to the Greater Grace Church to demand change after one of the city’s police officers shot and killed Michael Brown. That change included altering the make-up of the Ferguson city council as well as mayor, all of whom were on the church’s stage.

“I don’t know if you remember me or not, but I’m here for your job,” Wilson said to Knowles. “What I see up there for me is taxation without representation.”

This was the first city council meeting since police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, an event that prompted protest, violence and intense examination of the town's policies and how it prosecutes people who break city laws.

The U.S. Justice Department has opened its own investigation of the city’s police force. Meanwhile, a group of St. Louis University law school professors and attorneys with the Arch City Defenders have asked the city to provide amnesty to people charged with breaking city ordinances.

Tuesday's roughly two-hour public comment section came after the council introduced a litany of changes to the city’s police department and municipal court. The proposed changes included creating a citizens review board; restricting the amount of revenue collected from fines that can go toward the budget; and repealing the offense of failing to appear in court.

The council didn’t approve any of the changes, but Knowles told the crowd that it would vote in subsequent meetings.

“We are exploring a range of actions that are intended to connect our community members and demonstrate the transparency of all our city departments,” Knowles said. “We will do everything we can to restore a high quality of life for all Ferguson residents.”

Thomas Harvey of the Arch City Defenders is one of the attorneys who have called for amnesty for all nonviolent violations of city ordinances. He said the proposed changes don’t necessarily go as far as he’d like, but he added it’s a step in the right direction. He said getting rid of the “failure to appear charge” would be a “welcome relief” to many of his clients. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Thomas Harvey of the Arch City Defenders.

“Courts have to start treating these people as people with real-life problems,” Harvey said. “That’s one of the primary concerns our clients have -- nobody is listening to them when they say ‘I’m not a scofflaw. I’m a poor person who’s have a hard time making these fines.’”

But Harvey said Ferguson’s proposed changes might not have much of an impact if other municipalities don’t change their respective court systems as well. That may be tricky, especially since some of St. Louis County’s 90 municipalities depend on the revenue from tickets even more than Ferguson.

“When our clients hear from judges ‘I don’t care, give us the money,' that sends a wrong message. And it destroys the political capital that they otherwise could build for their communities," Harvey said.

Seething anger

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson was on hand during the council meeting.

Most of the people who spoke Tuesday night didn’t have a particularly magnanimous opinion of the proposed changes – or the city council.

The public forum section of the meeting featured speaker after speaker who launched blistering criticism of Ferguson’s council and the mayor.  Many were furious at the city for how Brown was treated after he was shot; the way demonstrators were arrested during the August protests; and how the largely white city council didn’t represent a community with an African-American majority. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Joshua Williams of Ferguson

“It is hard for me to believe that there are 60 percent of black people and this is the outcome,” said Cleo Willis, Sr., directing his comments to Knowles during the public comment session. “It is clear to me that there is some corruption in the voting patterns here. I refuse to accept anything short of that, sir.”

But many in the crowd were especially angry that Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Brown, hadn’t been arrested, even though many who protested the 18-year-old’s death have been arrested.

“We’re going to be out here until we get justice,” said Ferguson resident Joshua Williams.

Others took aim at the city council's proposed ordinance changes. John Chasnoff, who used to work at the ACLU of Missouri, questioned whether the citizens police board would be effective. He brought the crowd to its feet when he said: "You’ve lost authority to govern this community. I think it’s clear… You’re going to step aside gracefully if this community is going to heal."

At least one person from outside the St. Louis area agreed with him.

Damon Lynch is a pastor with a church in Cincinnati, a city that also experienced riots after a police officer shot an unarmed black teenager. He’s been to Ferguson three times since Brown’s death to try and provide his perspective on how to alter the city’s governmental structure.  

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Damon Lynch has been to Ferguson three times since Michael Brown's death. The Cincinnati resident is trying to impart his experience to the town and St. Louis County.

Lynch told St. Louis Public Radio that one of the ways Cincinnati moved forward was by agreeing to a binding federal court order to alter the city’s police department – which included a citizens review board with subpoena power. He said no such authority existed in the proposed draft of the bill establishing Ferguson’s board.

“It does not include what ours does, which is investigatory power of this city and subpoena power,” Lynch said. “So when the crime scene tape goes up [in Cincinnati], the Citizens Complaint Authority investigators can go under it like anybody else and do an independent investigation.”

Lynch also said the citizens board has a paid director and paid investigators. He emphasized what happened in Cincinnati was “a binding agreement in federal court,” as opposed to just at the whim of the city council.

“We’ve had boards like what they’re proposing with no power,” Lynch said. “If they want to investigate a police officer and they call them in, if he says ‘I don’t want to come,’ they can’t make him come without subpoena power.”

Moving forward

In an interview on Wednesday, Knowles told St. Louis Public Radio that, among other things, he used police review boards in other cities as a guide to draft the bill introduced yesterday. He said he tried, but failed, to get a copy of the civilian review bill that was nearly implemented in St. Louis a few years ago.

He said he wanted to “at least start with a template for a first reading that other communities in the region are doing as a start.” He said it’s highly possible that the measure the council passes will be have significant changes.

“Within the next two weeks before we have a second reading [of the bill], we want to take all these comments and questions and concerns into account,” Knowles said. “We don’t want to make a hasty decision. But the truth is, we want to make a good decision that both serves the city and serves the people who are concerned here.”

Knowles said giving the citizens review board subpoena or investigatory power could require changes to Ferguson’s charter. That would require a citywide vote, which likely wouldn’t be able to occur until April of next year at the earliest.

He went onto say that there are “some limitations of what we can do by ordinance without a charter change.”

“There’s been some people that have said they should have powers to do investigations or make determinations of employment matters,” Knowles said. “One thing we have to be careful of is there’s nothing in our charter that allows anything like that. I mean, those are all things that are done by the city manager. And even an elected body like the city council is strictly prohibited from doing that.”

“The hope is that the first draft lets people know we’re looking at it,” he added. “There’s a final draft that will at least let people know we’re going to do what we can to move us in the right direction. If we have to, we might have to look at charter change down the road.”

Near the end of Tuesday's roughly three-hour meeting, the church’s pastor – Bishop Larry O. Jones – addressed a still angry crowd as well as members of the council. He noted that council members stayed relatively quiet during the proceedings, as is custom during most city and county meetings. (Knowles said during the meeting that council members would have town hall meetings within their wards to directly respond to questions and criticism.)

“You didn’t answer any questions tonight. You heard a lot of things said,” Jones said. “Let’s be honest. It’s time for a change. Things must change and they must change now. Because we cannot have a city that remains in pain.”

“If my children keep asking me a question and if I don’t answer the question, after a while they become angry,” he added. “It’s time to make a change.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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