One month after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, the town has settled into an uneasy calm as some institutional change seems poised to take place.
On Monday, the Ferguson City Council announced it would be taking concrete steps to address institutionalized corruption and racism in the city's police department and municipal courts system. The council said it would set up a citizen review board made up of residents who are not involved in the local government to provide oversight and guidance to the police force, which councilman Mark Byrne said could help "improve trust within the community and increase transparency."
"We want to demonstrate to residents that we take their concerns extremely seriously," Byrne added.
The council will hold its first public meeting since the shooting on Tuesday night. Proposals for other changes will also be introduced at that time, based at least in part on demands of protesters who marched against police brutality for weeks after Brown's death. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles, who has been called on to resign by many activists, will be in attendance.
Although the meeting was arranged to seek public input on the impending changes, a media contact for the public relations firm representing the city told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that no Ferguson official would be available to comment on it.
The tragic and fatal encounter between the young black man and white police officer, as well as the brutal and excessive police response to the rallies that grew out of a vigil for Brown, became the catalyst for scrutiny of the deeply-seated racist policies that had plagued the majority-black town of 20,000 for years before its name entered the media lexicon.
Investigations of police records turned up evidence that Ferguson officers were twice as likely to arrest black drivers during traffic stops as they were whites. The racial makeup of the force — 50 white officers, three black — also provoked public outcry. A study by the ArchCity Defenders, a legal nonprofit in St. Louis, found that low-income and homeless residents in the region were targeted for a cycle of legalized persecution and escalating fines through "a kind of low-level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay." The study found that Ferguson collected nearly $3 million from court fines and fees in 2013 and that residents in the small town had accumulated more than 40,000 outstanding warrants — most for nonviolent offenses.
St. Louis University Law Professor Brendan Roediger told the New York Times that the tense relationship between residents and police had long been based on the city's young black men being routinely jailed for petty infractions and failures to appear "and not around investigations of serious crimes."
The council said it would vote Tuesday on an ordinance to cap court fine revenues at or below 15 percent of the city's overall revenue, moving excess revenues to special community projects. Failure to appear offenses for municipal courts would be repealed. Other burdens, such as the city's $25 car towing fee for abandoned or nonworking vehicles, as well as fees for "notification" of failure to appear and warrant recalls, would be abolished.
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"They are sending a message to the court that their job is to protect people is to be about fighting crime and not to be about revenue generating," Roediger told KSDK.
"The spirit of this is a great first step," ArchCity Defenders executive director Thomas Harvey told the Post-Dispatch. "I'm hoping they can improve upon it, and hopefully be a model for other municipalities."
Wilson has been on paid administrative leave since the shooting. The changes come as police continue to ignore protester demands for him to be taken into custody. Brown's parents held a press conference Tuesday calling for Wilson's immediate arrest, following a rally on Friday in front of Ferguson City Hall where activists held signs that read, "A single mom gets locked up for traffic tickets but Darren Wilson gets paid vacation?"
Community leaders have organized a march on Wednesday to shut down Interstate 70 in an act of civil disobedience against Missouri Governor Jay Nixon's refusal to appoint a new prosecutor to Brown's case. The current prosecutor for St. Louis County, Robert McCulloch, has been accused of racism and bias in favor of police officers.
Ferguson's chaotic early days also drew international attention to some of the dangers of militarized police. In Washington, D.C., a Senate subcommittee held a hearing Tuesday to discuss the issue, where Senator Claire McCaskill — who represents Missouri — noted that local police have more mine-resistant armored tanks than the National Guard.
"I think most Americans were uncomfortable with a suburban street in St. Louis being transformed into a war zone... complete with rubber bullets, tear gas... and laser sights on assault weapons," McCaskill said, adding that "military police tactics are not compatible” with the First Amendment.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) said people "were horrified by the images out of Ferguson."
"One of the fundamental things about America is dissent... confronting protesters with armoured personnel carriers is thoroughly un-American," Paul said.