LOUIS — The city of Ferguson, Missouri, is reviewing nearly 8,000 municipal court cases from before 2014 to determine which should be thrown out, a process expected to take about six months, the attorney for the St. Louis suburb told a federal judge Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry heard a status update on the consent agreement between Ferguson and the U.S. Department of Justice. The agreement requires Ferguson to remedy mistreatment of African-American residents by its police and court system — problems uncovered in a Justice Department investigation launched after the August 2014 police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
A St. Louis County grand jury and the Justice Department both declined to charge Darren Wilson, the white Ferguson officer who fatally shot the black and unarmed Brown. Wilson resigned in November 2014, but the shooting was a catalyst for the national Black Lives Matter movement and prompted a Justice Department investigation that led to a civil rights lawsuit.
The lawsuit, which accused Ferguson’s court system and law enforcement of racial bias, ended when the city of about 20,000 residents agreed to the consent decree in 2016. The wide-ranging agreement calls for community policing, hiring more minority officers and many other changes in policing. It also pushes for court reforms.
The Justice Department probe found that the court system in Ferguson was generating revenue largely on the backs of poor and minority residents through fines, court costs and other fees. A key effort under the consent agreement is an amnesty program for old court cases. City Attorney Apollo Carey said 7,933 unresolved cases filed before Jan. 1, 2014, are being reviewed by Ferguson’s prosecutor.
The process should be concluded by June, said Carey, who urged residents to be patient.
“This is hard,” he said. “Being under federal oversight is just a difficult thing to do. A cultural change takes a long period of time.”
In general, only pre-2014 charges for more serious crimes such as assault, reckless endangerment or drunken driving will be pursued. But other cases that might be included are ones involving allegations of driving with a suspended or revoked license if the person cited has additional charges since 2014. Carey said another clause in the agreement allows the prosecutor discretion to pursue an old case if it is in the interest of public safety.
Ferguson leaders began municipal court reform efforts within weeks of Brown’s death. A new judge, who is black, took over in 2015. Thousands of warrants have been dismissed, and Ferguson no longer jails people initially arrested for minor offences such as traffic violations if they miss a court date.
But some people who spoke at Tuesday’s hearing questioned whether the targeting of African-Americans has stopped. Resident Keith Rose said that at a recent municipal court session, all but a handful of the 150 or so people facing municipal charges were black.
“It appears to me that Ferguson might be inching back to its old ways,” Rose said.
Blacks make up about two-thirds of Ferguson’s population.
Carey, citing ongoing litigation, declined to respond directly to Rose’s comments, but said the court system has been audited this year and Justice Department observers have attended hearings.
Justice Department attorney Jude Volek said he was “encouraged” by progress the city is making on the amnesty program. He said transparency in the reform process remains an “ongoing challenge” and that city officials need to do a better job of informing the public about meetings and hearings.
Judge Perry said that overall, Ferguson appears to be making improvements.
“Things are better,” she said.