POLITICS

Ferguson's Neighbors In St. Louis County Greet Damning DOJ Report With A Shrug

03/06/2015 03:44 pm ET | Updated Mar 09, 2015

The Justice Department's report documenting rampant discrimination and misconduct in Ferguson's criminal justice system also implicated municipalities across the St. Louis region. Missouri's top elected official responded to the report with alarm -- but local leaders have greeted the report with a shrug, and show no signs of bringing about change of their own accord.

"The DOJ’s report lays out in stark, exhaustive detail the practices of a system that too often profits from its most vulnerable citizens," Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) said in remarks to the state bar association on Friday. "Restoring people’s trust that our municipal courts can administer the rule of law fairly and equitably is essential."

On the local level, however, officials seem to be far less convinced of the need for change. In Ferguson, the immediate reaction to the Justice Department report has mostly focused on racist emails it highlighted. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles told the Associated Press on Friday that three employees who sent the emails no longer worked for the city. But the emails mentioned in the reports were merely anecdotes that were meant to illustrate the deeper, systemic problems.

Knowles had previously been defensive about the amount of revenue that Ferguson took in through ticketing and its municipal court system. In an interview with a Huffington Post reporter in August, he said that Ferguson’s neighboring municipalities took in much higher portions of their revenue on court collections.

“It’s not significant compared to other cities in St. Louis,” Knowles said at the time. “There’s a lot of small cities around here that are upwards of 60, 70 percent. Just look around us. Seriously, go look at all of our neighbors.”

“Ferguson has never been pinpointed -- until now, people are trying to make it an issue -- never before has it been one of the egregious cities in that regard,” he said.

Knowles was correct that the practices described in the Justice Department report seem to be pervasive. Perhaps the most notable character in the Justice Department's report was not Ferguson court clerk Mary Ann Twitty, who was just fired over racist emails, but Municipal Judge Ronald Brockmeyer. He is a local divorce and defense lawyer who wears five hats: As part-time judge in Ferguson and another city, and as prosecutor in three more municipalities.

Brockmeyer, the report documented, helped fix tickets and dispensed favors to colleagues. At the same time, he aggressively increased fees and collection activity on poor African-American residents. The Guardian also reported on Friday that while he aggressively jailed defendants for non-payment of low-level fines, Brockmeyer himself owes $170,000 in unpaid taxes.

Elected officials in the other places where Brockmeyer is employed seem to have done little soul-searching in the wake of the DOJ report. Mayor Jack Shrewsbury of Breckenridge Hills, the other city where Brockmeyer is judge, did not respond to a request for comment from HuffPost, but he did speak to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Shrewsbury said his city had qualms about Brockmeyer, but not the ones listed in the report. Shrewsbury said Brockmeyer was nearly fired for being too lenient on traffic violators.

"Do I think he did anything wrong?” Shrewsbury asked the paper. “No more wrong than any other attorney out there. You can go to any judge, any prosecuting attorney. That stuff happens everywhere."

That's a sentiment also expressed by Vinita Park Mayor James McGee, who serves as the tiny city's first African-American mayor.

"We've got a problem in the United States, not only in Ferguson," he said. "Ferguson could be any city, any municipality."

But not any city also has Brockmeyer on payroll as prosecutor, as Vinita Park does. McGee said that despite the ticket-fixing and favor-trading detailed in the Justice Department report, he has no concerns about Brockmeyer.

"I really don't. If I did he wouldn't be here," he said. "Ferguson is another entity. As long as he's doing the right thing here."

McGee said the kind of low-level harassment and punishment of poor people described in the Justice Department report could not happen in his town because of "court best practices" he had established -- and also because he himself kept a close eye on the courts.

"I check our dockets, check our tickets," said the mayor. "Each municipality has to police their own."

McGee is dead set against municipal consolidation in the area, claiming murders in St. Louis might shoot up because county police would not be able to keep an eye on small hamlets. His comments echo those of many mayors and councillors in the area, who present a major obstacle to eliminating cities or courts.

“It isn’t going to happen,” Frank Vatterott, a municipal court judge heading a committee recommending modest improvements to the courts, told St. Louis Public Radio.

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