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Activists, Ferguson residents, call for public hearing once consent decree is filed

Organization for Black Struggle members organize activists and Ferguson residents into a group outside the Ferguson Police Department Thurs Dec. 3, 2015 to call for public input in the city's consent decree.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Organization for Black Struggle members organize activists and Ferguson residents into a group outside the Ferguson Police Department Thurs Dec. 3, 2015 to call for public input in the city's consent decree.

As negotiations to reform the Ferguson Police Department continue between the city of Ferguson and the U.S. Department of Justice, a group of Ferguson residents spearheaded by the Organization for Black Struggle says it’s concerned that the taxpayers and community members don’t know the details of those negotiations.

The group, known as the Ferguson Collaborative, wants community stakeholders to be able to weigh in at a public “fairness hearing” before a judge signs off on the consent decree.

“What tends to happen in cases like this when the Department of Justice finds violations (is) they begin a process of trying to negotiate a resolution to the ultimate civil rights lawsuit. And the suit doesn’t get filed until the proposed settlement or resolution of that suit is already agreed upon ahead of time, said former ACLU attorney Denise Lieberman.

“The unfortunate part about that is that those negotiations take place behind closed doors between the two parties. And in this case one of the parties, the city of Ferguson and the leaders of Ferguson, which represents the people of Ferguson, has not been fully forthcoming about the nature of those negotiations. That’s the precise kind of situation where the court would benefit from hearing from the residents to ensure the decree in fact addresses the concerns that they have.”

According to University of Michigan law professor Margo Schlanger, who keeps a clearinghouse of civil rights litigation, fairness hearings are a standard part of class action suits but are not generally part of the type of consent decree being decided in Ferguson.

“Sometimes there are hearings on settlements like this because someone with an arguable cognizable legal interest objects to the settlement—like maybe the police union or something,” Schlanger said, adding that a court can decide to hold a fairness hearing in a settlement like this, but it’s not a requirement.

Lieberman said a fairness hearing would be beneficial in this instance in part because “the people who most stand to be affected have not been involved in the negotiation process” and “the proposed relief might be controversial.”

Members of the Ferguson Collaborative called a news conference Thursday to ask for the fairness hearing out of frustration that they don’t know more about the city's consent decree negotiations.

Ferguson is "trying to be as transparent as legally possible" - Jeff Small, city spokesman

They say community members deserve a seat at the negotiation table.

“The response sometimes we get (from the city council) is you elected us and we’re representing you,” said Ferguson resident Mildred Clines. “But if you’re representing us why aren’t you being transparent with us when we ask questions and we want to know what’s going on? Why won’t you respond to us? And they’re not responding.”

Clines said that even though the DOJ met with residents before issuing its report, the department didn’t hear all resident concerns.

“Some residents didn’t even talk to the DOJ. But they did express their concerns with the city itself (at city town halls). That’s why we need to know what they’re talking about and what they’re negotiating. That’s why we need to be at the table as well,” said Clines.

Activists said that as the taxpayers and the community members interacting with police they have a right to be involved.

“We’re concerned that the things that are most important to the residents of Ferguson, particularly the people most affected by our police department, may not be getting addressed,” said Ferguson resident Emily Davis. “Community input is necessary and those affected most by racist policing should be engaged in this process to ensure the proposed transformations meaningfully address the issues that we’re facing.”

Ferguson spokesman Jeff Small said the city can’t reveal details while sensitive legal matters are undecided.

He said the city is asking for patience and that it’s “trying to be as transparent as legally possible” but can’t “get into matters that might jeopardize negotiations.”

City council member Ella Jones said the city and the DOJ have agreed not to release information until they've come to an agreement.

The cost of the consent decree has the potential to bankrupt Ferguson.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.