POLITICS

The Problem Is Way Bigger Than Ferguson, Justice Department Report Reveals

03/05/2015 04:23 pm ET | Updated Mar 05, 2015

It was billed as an investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. But a hard-hitting report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Justice also reads as an indictment of cities and towns across the St. Louis region.

The report implicates at least four other municipalities in alleged misconduct or questionable behavior. And as the Justice Department itself acknowledged, many of the conditions described in the report could have been written about any number of the 90 municipalities in St. Louis County.

"What's listed in the report about Ferguson is a widespread practice," said Thomas Harvey, executive director for the Arch City Defenders, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that has brought attention to the municipal courts in St. Louis County over the past several months. "I don't think anyone who takes these issues seriously … can limit their work to Ferguson."

The municipal court structure of St. Louis County provides many lawyers in the area with well-paid part-time jobs as prosecutors and municipal court judges that require them to work just a few hours a month. Those courts in turn serve as little more than municipal cash cows, activists have long alleged.

Among the allegations and incidents in the report:

  • Ferguson's court clerk allegedly "fixed," or canceled, at least 12 tickets with a clerk for Hazelwood, population 25,000. And Ferguson Municipal Judge Ronald Brockmeyer had Ferguson's prosecutor -- who is also prosecutor in Hazelwood -- fix a ticket for him. Mayor Matthew G. Robinson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
  • Ferguson's court clerk also asked for and received help with a ticket from a clerk for St. Ann, population 13,000. The city formerly employed a police officer who told Ferguson protesters, on video, "I will fucking kill you!"
  • In April 2011, the Justice Department said, a Pine Lawn court administrator emailed Ferguson's court clerk to have a warrant recalled -- because the person listed was applying for a job in Pine Lawn. That was fine, the Ferguson clerk responded, but added that "[a]fter he gets the job, he will have money to pay off his fines with Ferguson." Pine Lawn -- which in a bizarre twist also employs Anthony Gray, a lawyer for Michael Brown’s family -- formerly employed a man as a police commander despite allegations that he raped women and exhibited "sociopath behavior." The small city plagued by corruption scandals has received over half of its revenue from its municipal court in recent years.
  • Ferguson's Municipal Court Judge Ronald Brockmeyer apparently had a one-word answer for a city employee who wanted a Ferguson police supervisor's ticket dismissed in nearby Breckenridge Hills, population 4,700. Brockmeyer also serves as a judge there. "Sure," he replied.

One great irony of all this behavior, the Justice Department noted, was that Ferguson officials long said African-American residents faced disproportionate fines and other legal action because of their supposed lack of "personal responsibility" -- and at the same time, those officials were cutting favors for friends.

Some of the allegations listed in the Justice Department report seem damning, but officials in nearby towns have only begun to take stock of them. Breckenridge Hills city clerk Sheree Leamon told HuffPost, "We were not aware of anything, and we don't have any comment on it." Breckenridge Hills Mayor Jack Shrewsbury did not immediately return a request for comment.

Mayors Reggie Jones of Dellwood, Thomas Schneider of Florissant and James McGee of Vinita Park -- three places where Brockmeyer also serves as prosecutor -- did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Brockmeyer did not respond to a request for comment via his law firm, which specializes in divorce and criminal defense. But there may have been warning signs about the judge. In 2011 Patch reported that Brockmeyer recalled several warrants for a Bel-Ridge trustee after she nominated him to serve as judge there.

"I don't think that's a conflict at all," Brockmeyer said in November 2014 of the many hats he wears. "Not at all."

The Justice Department report found that other municipalities in the area "have engaged in a number of practices that have the effect of discouraging people from attending court sessions.” One of the judges in a neighboring municipality told investigators it was “entirely the municipal courts’ fault” that people believe they will be arrested for appearing in court if they are unable to pay fines.

“There are many other municipalities in the state of Missouri, and in fact in the country at large, that are engaged in the same kind of practices,” one DOJ official said Wednesday at a briefing with reporters on the Ferguson report. “Our investigation focused on Ferguson, but we believe and hope that there will be collaboration between Ferguson Police Department and other municipalities in the state of Missouri to engage in the same kinds of reforms, since they are now on notice about the problems with the way that it is operating in Ferguson.”

Even before Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, the presiding judge of the St. Louis County Circuit Court sent a letter to judges in the area putting them on notice for routinely barring defendants from bringing their children to court, thus making it difficult for them to make court dates. Lawyers for the Arch City Defenders documented routine abuses of the law and harassment for low-level offenses.

"The degree to which it's happening varies from town to town, but the basic premise that courts are being used to raise revenue for towns that have lost their tax base is happening in 80 of the 90 towns that we've reviewed in the region," said Harvey.

In the wake of Brown's death, there have been sporadic calls for the area's patchwork of small cities and towns to be eliminated or consolidated. But mayors of those small towns -- many of whom are black, complicating the reform dynamic -- have fought back.

A group of local judges and prosecutors called the Municipal Court Improvement Committee has similarly resisted calls to kill off the municipal courts, instead calling for more modest reforms.

But Harvey argued that the Ferguson report proved that now is not the time for thinking small. He wants many of the courts closed.

"I like the reforms that DOJ proposed for Ferguson," he said. "The problem is if they adopted every single one of those reforms, it wouldn't change things for people who have to drive through the other 90 towns."

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