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Activists taking 'wait and see' approach on police reforms in Ferguson post-Trump

Ferguson resident Emily Davis waits to speak at a 2015 Ferguson City Council meeting. Davis is part of the Ferguson Collaborative, a group that's been following the consent decree process closely.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Activists like Ferguson resident Emily Davis, pictured here in 2015, will be keeping a watchful eye on the progress of a consent decree now that Donald Trump is president-elect.

The election of Donald Trump as president won't change the fact that Ferguson and its police department are operating under a federal civil rights consent decree. But how that decree is enforced could look very different.

Trump's apparent pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Session, R-Ala., is critical of the Civil Rights Division's aggressiveness in pursuing police misconduct cases. And while he can't undo the agreement between Ferguson and the Department of Justice, he can certainly use a lighter hand, said Margo Schlanger, the Henry M. Butzel Professor of Law at the University of Michigan and an expert on civil rights litigation.

"[The DOJ] has to decide how much attention they spend investigating whether or not it's being complied with," Schlanger said of the Ferguson consent decree. "And if they discover there is a compliance issue, they have to decide how muscular a response to deliver."

It is possible the DOJ or Ferguson could ask Judge Catherine Perry to re-open the case and attempt to negotiate a better agreement, Schlanger said, but she finds that unlikely because the facts of the case haven't changed.

Activists like John Chasnoff of the Ferguson Collaborative plan to keep a watchful eye on the process.

"There's a lot of unknowns for everybody at this point," Chasnoff said. "The consent decree is in the early stages of being implemented, so it's hard to tell yet if reforms are moving on a successful track. How it goes moving forward was already somewhat up in the air, and now we just have to really pay attention and keep our eye on the ball."

Chasnoff said he had received assurances from the DOJ attorneys and the independent monitor, Clark K. Ervin, that they will remain on the job.

"The other player here is the judge who can intervene if she thinks things are not going well. So really, we’re just going to have to see if reforms are happening in an effective way, or if people are just willing to check off the boxes," he said.

Ferguson, the Department of Justice, and the independent monitor will update Judge Perry on the city’s progress on Dec. 6.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.