by Ray Downs
Ever since Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, one of the main topics of concern has been the deep rift between police and the community, including the city's court system and policing tactics, which residents say unfairly targets black people and overly impacts low-income people.
Some of that might change with the Ferguson City Council announcing it will make moderate policy changes in an effort to build trust within the community.
The proposed changes, announced Monday night, will include a cap of how much the city can collect for its general city operations, a citizen review board to give the community more oversight of its police department, the abolishing of several court fines, payment plans for outstanding fines and a one-month warrant recall period.
"The overall goal of these changes is to improve trust within the community and increase transparency, particularly within Ferguson's courts and police department," says council member Mark Byrne in a prepared statement."We want to demonstrate to residents that we take their concerns extremely seriously. That's why we're initiating new changes within our local police force and in our courts."
The response from the Ferguson City Council comes after weeks of widespread criticism over the city's policing and court systems from local residents who were given more media attention during the protests to national media outlets, including a New York Times editorial.
ArchCity Defenders, the nonprofit legal group that specialized in helping low-income people deal with court fines and warrants, has been a vocal critic of these policies across St. Louis County and has urged courts in the area to recall warrants to allow people a chance to deal with their legal issues without the threat of going to jail. Thomas Harvey, executive director of the group, says he is happy with the direction the Ferguson City Council is taking, but would to see more action taken by other municipalities.
"Recalling warrants in Ferguson is good, but if you have warrants everywhere, it doesn't help you that much," Harvey tells Daily RFT. "It's still representative of a failure to think as a region."
In an outline of the proposed changes, the city council says that the citizen review board will include members who are not involved in local government, and the board will work closely with the police chief to advise and review operations.
The Ferguson Police Department has come under great scrutiny for being out of touch with the community. Not only are police officers perceived as being from outside the area and not a part of the Ferguson fabric, but in a city that is predominantly black, the Ferguson Police Department is said to have only three black officers.
But personal relations between the police and Ferguson residents have largely been damaged by the court system and police tactics. Residents claim police harass and ticket them while the courts pile on fines that become a financial burden, and eventually a reason to go to jail once warrants are issued. See also: Protesters Demand Improved Police Accountability at Downtown Demonstration
Ferguson issued more than 1,500 warrants per 1,000 people in 2013, more than triple the number of any Missouri city outside St. Louis County, according to statistics from the New York Times and University of Missouri Law School.
To change what looks like a city revenue system that preys on the poor, the city council says it will introduce an ordinance that will cap budgeted court fine revenues at 15 percent of the city's revenue. Anything above that will be earmarked for special community projects instead of general revenue purposes.
Other smaller but significant proposals include abolishing the "failure to appear" fine; the $25 administrative fee to "cover the cost of police personnel who arrange for the towing of abandoned, nonfunctional or other vehicles"; the $50 warrant recall fee; and the $15 notification fee that gets charged when a defendant fails to appear.
People with outstanding fines will also have a chance of entering into a payment plan. Defendants will plead their case to a judge who will then decide if a monthly plan or alternative sentencing will be an option.
Finally, the city council is requesting a one-month warrant recall period to begin September 15 and run through October 15. During this time, people with outstanding warrants will have a chance to get them recalled.
The city council says these changes "have been accomplished or are in the process of implementation." They are also exploring additional changes.
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