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Ferguson consent decree will likely be brought back before City Council

Council member Wesley Bell answers questions from reporters.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
Council member Wesley Bell answers questions from reporters. Bell told St. Louis Public Radio that councilmembers would likely bring a 131-page consent decree back up for consideration.

A member of the Ferguson City Council says his colleagues will likely reconsider a sweeping consent decree implementing major changes to the beleaguered city’s police department and government.

The move comes roughly a month after the council rejected aspects of the decree, which came about in the aftermath of Michael Brown's shooting death.

“I think those who are concerned with finances can now have assurances,” said Ferguson Councilman Wesley Bell in a telephone interview with St. Louis Public Radio. “And then those who understand that these reforms are much needed and are in the best interest of the city and all of our residents are also going to be happy with the outcome. I would say it’s a win-win.” 

The decree would require Ferguson, among other things, to provide additional training, body cameras and procedural alterations to the city’s police department. It would also make big changes to the city’s municipal court and administration. But citing cost concerns, council members placed a number of conditions to accepting the agreementwhich compelled the DOJ to file a lawsuit against Ferguson. Ferguson finance officials cited an estimated cost between $9.4 million and $15.8 million over five years — compared to $4 million to $8 million to go to court.

Since that time, Bell said the DOJ provided assurances to city leaders on a number of key financial points – including the thorny issue of increasing salaries for police officers. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch obtained a copy of a letter from Vanita Gupta, the head of the DOJ’s civil rights division, stating the agency would drop its lawsuit if the city signed onto the initial consent decree.

(A spokesperson for the Justice Department did not return a message asking for a copy of that letter, which can viewed here.)

Bell, who put forward the motion to place conditions on the decree, said on Sunday that a bill that accepts the consent decree should be up for “first reading” at this Tuesday’s council meeting. Typically, it takes the council at least two weeks before members finally approve something.

“I think the letter alleviates the concern for those who were worried about financing this,” Bell said. “And so now, I would hope that not only the council, but residents, will rally behind this decree. And rally behind the implementation of these very progressive reforms. It’s not only in the best interest of the city, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Supporters of the consent decree say  big alterations to Ferguson’s government is necessary in the wake of Brown's death. But detractors – including a number of Ferguson residents – worried that the agreement would ultimately bankrupt the financially strapped city.

Bell said thanks to the DOJ’s letter, many of those fiscal concerns have been alleviated. He added that city officials are already implementing aspects of the decree, adding “If you do an honest and objective assessment, the change has already been underway.”

“The community policing that’s in the decree has already begun,” Bell said. “There’s civilian review board. That ordinance is almost ready for first reading. Court reform has already been initiated. Even during the time from the initial meeting where the conditions were proposed, we’d given our staff directives to start implementing as much as of the decree as possible.

“I think, honestly, by bringing this back up for a vote with assurances from the Department of Justice that they’re going to work with the city, I think it’s a win-win,” he added.

The Ferguson City Council is set to meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Ferguson's City Hall. 

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