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Ferguson Officials Promise Change to Cops, Courts

City Council says it will create citizen review board and cap court revenue.

Officials in Ferguson, Missouri say that change is coming to the city’s cops and courts, after criticism that heavy ticketing and high court fees helped create tension between police and residents even before the police shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown last month.

Just hours ahead of Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, the first since Brown’s death on August 9 and the protests that followed, Council members announced reforms to the town’s controversial court and plans to create a citizen review board to help guide the police department.

“We want to demonstrate to residents that we take their concerns extremely seriously,” said Ferguson Council Member Mark Byrne in a statement.

Ferguson has had some of the heaviest ticketing in St. Louis County, and state data shows that in 2013 Ferguson police pulled over black drivers at a higher per capita rate than white drivers. According to city budget documents, court revenues soared 80 percent between 2011 and 2013, and were expected to yield $2.6 million for the fiscal year ending June 2013, becoming the second-largest source of city money after sales tax.

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Ferguson has also been criticized for allegedly unfairly targeting the poor with court fines. The Council said Monday it will reduce or eliminate some fines levied for failure to appear in court, and create a special docket for those struggling to pay outstanding court debt.

Proposed reforms would cap court fine revenue at 15 percent of the city budget. Any additional funds collected would go to special community projects rather than toward general city revenue. More details were expected to be revealed at Tuesday’s Council meeting, which begins at 7 p.m.

“It’s not everything we asked for, but it’s a great start,” said Thomas Harvey of Arch City Defenders, a non-profit legal group that represents defendants in St. Louis County. But he added that the problems addressed in Ferguson can be found elsewhere in the county.

“You can fix this problem in Ferguson,” he said, “but it’s broader than just Ferguson.”

In Depth

-- Lisa Riordan Seville