Eyes of nation on Ferguson, lead monitor tells residents

AP News
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Posted: Dec 05, 2016 9:30 PM

FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — The lead monitor overseeing efforts to eradicate racial bias in Ferguson's police and court system told residents Monday that the "eyes of the whole nation" are on the St. Louis suburb.

Clark Ervin spoke to about 100 people at a town hall meeting in the town forever changed following the Aug. 9, 2014, police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Ervin said the evaluation of Ferguson, and effort to make improvements, is in the early stages of a process expected to last five years. His group plans to survey residents in January and to closely monitor progress in Ferguson's municipal court, including interviews with people who go before the court.

"The eyes of the whole nation are on Ferguson," Ervin said. He said the outcome "will send a signal if we can make progress here, we can make progress around the country."

Ferguson's justice system came under scrutiny after the fatal 2014 police shooting of Brown, who was black and unarmed. A county grand jury and the Department of Justice cleared Darren Wilson, the white Ferguson officer who killed Brown.

But the Justice Department found patterns of racial bias in Ferguson's policing and a municipal court system that generated revenue largely on the backs of poor and minority residents. A settlement approved in April required the city to adopt reforms under the supervision of a team of monitors led by Ervin, a former inspector general for the U.S. State Department and Homeland Security.

The consent decree calls for diversity training for police, outfitting officers and jail workers with body cameras, and other reforms. The cost of the monitoring alone is expected to cost the city more than $1 million over five years, with a cap of $1.25 million. Ferguson is also expected to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on implementing reforms.

City officials say reforms began long before the agreement with the Justice Department. Last year, the municipal court withdrew all warrants issued prior to Dec. 31, 2014. Nearly 10,000 warrants were affected. Suspended licenses that resulted solely from a failure to appear in court or failure to pay a fine were also reinstated.

Ervin said the community survey and direct monitoring of court practices will help determine "whether what the city tells us has been done for municipal court reform has in fact been done," he said.

Ferguson was criticized soon after Brown's death because nearly the entire police force, and most city leaders, were white, even though the town of 20,000 residents is two-thirds African-American. Since then, the city has hired black men as city manager and police chief, and three of the six city council members are now black.

The city is also working to diversify the police department, but the total number of officers that was around 50 at the time of Brown's death is now around 35, as low pay has made it difficult to fill openings. Ervin said his team wants to ensure that the low officer count is not hurting community policing efforts.

Sabrina Miller, a black, 49-year-old Ferguson resident, said her family has been treated unfairly by police in the past. She's hopeful the monitoring process will make a difference.

"This stuff has to change," Miller said.

On Tuesday, Ervin, city and Justice Department officials will provide an update to U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry.