The City of Ferguson: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

By Todd Swanstrom (University of Missouri – St. Louis)

On January 27th the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a Consent Decree to correct abusive police practices in Ferguson.  A few weeks later the Ferguson City Council voted 6-0 to amend the decree – knowing full well that DOJ would not accept any changes.  Sure enough, the next day Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the federal government was suing to the City of Ferguson to force compliance.   On March 15th, the city reversed itself and finally approved the Consent Decree.  Why would the city initially reject a set of recommendations that almost everyone agrees are necessary and beneficial and then reverse itself a few weeks later?

The origins of the Consent Decree go back to the shooting of Mike Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on August 9, 2014, which touched off a wave of protests and riots that continue to this day.  What subsequent investigations revealed is that the Mike Brown shooting was just the tip of a very big iceberg of systematic police abuse, falling disproportionately on young black males.  These abuses included:

  • Blacks accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops;
  • Blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to be stopped and searched, even though blacks were 26 percent less likely to be found with contraband;
  • Officers stopped and searched citizens based on no reasonable suspicion that they had committed a crime – and when they stood up for their rights, they were charged with Failure to Comply;
  • African Americans accounted for 94 percent of Failure to Comply charges;
  • Public officials wrote racist emails, including comparing President Obama to a chimpanzee;
  • Well-connected whites got their charges dropped or tickets fixed.

I could go on and on but you get the idea.  No one disputes the facts.  Everyone agrees that something needed to be done.   The Consent Decree includes 450 provisions that would stop the abuses.  Hundreds of citizens showed up when the City held hearings on the Consent Decree, many speaking out passionately about the need for change.   The city originally estimated that implementing the decree would cost about $3.5 million the first year.  Given that the city already faced a $2.8 million deficit (on an operating budget of $14.5 million), it is understandable why the Council originally voted unanimously to reject the Decree.

The Department of Justice subsequently sent a letter saying it would work with the city to keep costs down, now estimated at $1-1.5 million the first year, slowly declining in the next two years.  As a result, the Council reversed itself and voted unanimously to approve the Decree, a big step forward for Ferguson.  Following the vote cheers went up and the white mayor of Ferguson, James Knowles, and the father of Michael Brown hugged each other.

It would be nice to conclude that Ferguson has finally faced up to its problems and will begin to treat all of its citizens equally.  However, implementing the Decree will not be easy.  Ferguson is between a rock and a hard place.  Two tax increases are on the ballot for April.  If not approved, the city will be required to cut every other service in order fund the police reforms.  If the taxes are approved, the city will be able to squeak by but the fiscal squeeze will continue.

The financial burden of implementing the Consent Decree is evidence that the police misconduct was not just rooted old-fashioned racism, as pundits often imply.  The police abuses are rooted in a toxic mix of racial and class inequalities, driven by metropolitan development patterns, which are reinforced by local political boundaries.  Until we address these place-based inequalities, we will not bring justice to communities like Ferguson.

The DOJ report, by necessity, focuses on racial intent and the violations of right.  A careful reading of the report shows, however, that economic deprivation is the driving force behind police abuse.  Ferguson’s per capita property tax base is about one-third of the County’s average and sales tax revenue is declining.   Like many fiscally stressed governments, it faced a dilemma:  raise taxes to fund adequate services (and watch property values and retail sales fall further) or don’t raise taxes and watch city services deteriorate.

Like many municipalities it grasped a third alternative:  use the police and courts as a kind of ATM to generate revenue through traffic fines and court fees.  In the three years leading up to Michael Brown’s shooting revenue from fines and court fees increased 44 percent.  The DOJ report documents pressure from city officials on the Chief of Police to increase revenue.  This is why a city with a population of about 21,000 had 32,975 outstanding arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses in 2013.

The eastern side of Ferguson, where Michael Brown lived, has a poverty rate over 33 percent. The police targeted poor people, who are predominantly black, because they will tend to have arrest warrants hanging over their heads which will generate more fees and the lack the political power to push back.  The police in Ferguson were overwhelming white (50/53), underpaid, and poorly trained.  As a society we are asking for trouble if we pressure white police with little professional training into frequent encounters with poor unemployed young black men, such as Michael Brown (who apparently stole a handful of cigarillos from a convenience store shortly before the shooting).

A letter from the Assistant Attorney General informed Ferguson, as has been established by law, constitutional protection cannot be denied on the grounds of cost.   This all sounds very high minded.   The federal government is forcing Ferguson to correct its predatory police practices but it is not going to give the city one dollar to do this.  As city officials struggle over how to cope with the dilemma, black activists and white liberals assail them as racist.

The white residents and politicians in Ferguson, however, are not the main enemy.  It is easy for limousine liberals to criticize them but in fact they live in one of the more integrated communities in St. Louis.  It is tragic to watch blacks and whites in Ferguson fight each other at the same time that the real responsible agents are left off the hook. Underlying the turmoil in Ferguson is a pattern of metropolitan development that leaves inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson in an unsustainable position.  Largely white, middle- and upper-class suburbs west of Ferguson  zone out multi-family housing and require expensive single-family homes on large lots.  As a result, subsidized housing is concentrated in in high-poverty suburbs like Ferguson.   Lacking public transit, suburban poor struggle to afford a car (and avoid frivolous tickets) or end up wasting huge amounts of time trying to navigate sprawled out suburbs on public transit.  State funding formulas do not adequately compensate for the weak tax bases of suburban school districts.  Even if they had equal funding, educational opportunity would not be equal because of the burden of poverty.  In the Normandy School District where Michael Brown went to school, 100 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

In fact, many cities in St. Louis County have predatory policing practices that are as bad if not worse than Ferguson – and many of these cities are controlled by African Americans.  With an all-black city council, black mayor, and majority black police force, the nearby city of Berkeley engages in the same predatory policing practices, last year generating $111 in traffic fines and court fees per resident and issuing 5,504 arrest warrants

In short, Ferguson is not just about old-fashioned racism.  We need a new civil rights paradigm.  As an African American friend of mine put it, besides civil rights we need “silver rights.”  By not recognizing the economic forces that underlie civil rights violations and racial injustice, we end up pitting white and black working class and poor citizens against each other.  Suburban sprawl and uneven metropolitan development are the civil rights issues of the 21st Century.  Place matters.


Todd Swanstrom is the Des Lee Professor of Community Collaboration and Public Policy Administration at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, (UMSl).  He specializes in urban politics and public policy. He has an MA from Washington University (1971) and a Ph.D. from Princeton (1981). Prior to joining UMSL Todd taught at Saint Louis University and the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany (SUNY).

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  1. Editor’s Note: Revisiting Place Matters – Urban Affairs Forum

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