Ferguson officials, now mostly black like the city, still face federal suit over police reforms

When black protesters filled the streets of Ferguson, Mo., in the summer of 2014, it was hard not to notice that the city's government didn't look anything like its residents.

The St. Louis suburb was two-thirds black, but the Police Department was overwhelmingly white, as was the police officer who shot and killed black 18-year-old Michael Brown. The mayor was white and so were five of the city's six council members.

Now, Ferguson has passed a new milestone on its journey to reform: On Tuesday night, the City Council became majority black for the first time.

But with a lawsuit from the U.S. Justice Department looming, the city's troubles are far from over.

This week's swearing-in of Laverne Mitchom brought the racial makeup of the City Council more in line with the city's population after decades of demographic shifts had drawn a greater percentage of black residents into Ferguson.

The City Council had nominated Mitchom, a retired 65-year-old educator, to replace white council member and former Mayor Bryan Fletcher, who died at home in January at age 56.

"I was excited — for the first time, there was a majority of African Americans on the council," Mitchom told The Times on Wednesday. However, she added, "At the end of the day, white, black, whatever — we're going to be here in Ferguson together.... We've got to do what's best for all of us."

Before Fletcher's death, the council had been half-white and half-black. Two black council members were elected last April in the first municipal election following the protests and arsons that scarred the city in 2014.

Mitchom said she was in the streets for about four days after Brown's death to talk with protesters and exercise her 1st Amendment rights.

"I wanted to talk to the young people; I wanted them to know older people cared about how they thought, how they felt," Mitchom said. "A terrible tragedy took place here."

But Mitchom didn't have much time to settle in Tuesday night before protesters disrupted the City Council meeting.

They were protesting the city's ongoing battle with the Justice Department over an expensive package of policing reforms that the council rejected two weeks ago.

The Justice Department is suing Ferguson in federal court to force the city to implement recommended reforms to stop what federal officials called a rampant pattern of unconstitutional policing against the city's black residents.

The city's activists are backing the federal officials instead of their own city government, said Tony Rice, a Ferguson activist who was one of the protesters who disrupted the meeting.

"We feel snookered, if you will," Rice said of the City Council on Wednesday. "Everybody was like, 'Sign the consent decree, sign the consent decree.' … We feel like they have not been honest brokers."

Rice, who has been part of efforts to get Mayor James Knowles III to resign, was also not impressed so far with the council's black members.

"It's majority black, but it doesn't feel that way — it feels white-controlled," said Rice, who is African American. "The blacks on the board, to me, are kind of skittish. They're still learning how to speak truth to power; it's still kind of new to them."

Knowles and Ferguson's other City Council members could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday.

But Ronald Moore, a 55-year-old black engineer who lives in Ferguson, said he backed the council's opposition to the federal consent decree. City leaders have said the federal plan would be prohibitively expensive for the town of 21,111 people.

Moore criticized the complexity of the Justice Department's consent decree as "a money grab for a bunch of consultants to do nothing."

"The citizens are going to have to pay for this — a higher increase in property taxes at the same time property values have gone down. It's a double whammy," Moore said.

Moore noted that Missouri state lawmakers had already put limits on how much revenue cities could collect through fines, which had been one of Ferguson's key sources of income before the protests.

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"Everybody and their brother is watching them," Moore said of the increased police oversight. "I don't know what else they can do. They've already got [body] cameras. What else is left?"

The new councilwoman, Mitchom, was noncommittal when asked Wednesday how she'd like to resolve the consent-decree dispute with federal officials.

"We're going to be getting back together, and after hearing the community last night, as we have several other times, we're going to all come together and discuss what we need to do," Mitchom said.

Facing protesters at her first council meeting wasn't a problem for her.

"I'd been coming to meetings and been very active even before I had been considered for an appointment," Mitchom said. "I felt that they would be there, expressing their concerns and wanting us to know what we're upset about, so it wasn't a surprise."

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Twitter: @MattDPearce

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A version of this article appeared in print on February 25, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Police reforms suit clouds progress in Ferguson, Mo." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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