FERGUSON, Mo. -- Members of Ferguson's city council met Monday night behind closed doors to discuss the Justice Department’s blistering report on the city’s police force and municipal court -- and in a debate before a mostly elderly, white audience, some candidates for a council seat claimed the problems in the report were overblown.
In the wake of last week’s federal investigative report into the city’s law enforcement practices, the judge who ran Ferguson’s municipal court has resigned, a top court clerk who sent a racist email was fired, and two police department officials connected to racist emails have stepped down. The report highlighted problems with St. Louis County’s fractured network of municipal courts that extend beyond Ferguson.
But some people looking to join Ferguson's government think the Justice Department was unfair to the city. Two black women and two white men are running in an election next month to replace Kim Tihen, one of two representatives for Ferguson’s Ward 1. Tihen, a former police officer, was one of the officers involved in a 2009 incident in which a man was wrongfully arrested, allegedly beaten, and charged with destruction of property for bleeding on police uniforms.
Mike McGrath, one of the white candidates, believes that Tihen did a good job on the council and that the Justice Department report on Ferguson was unfair.
“They tried to go after Officer Wilson,” McGrath said in an interview after the debate on Monday, referring to Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014. “When they couldn’t do that, they went after the city.”
McGrath drew strong support from the audience when he said the residents of Ferguson’s apartment complexes, who are mostly black, didn’t care as much about the city as the homeowners.
“I may be a silly old man in all of this, but I don’t think we have a big race issue here,” he said in an interview after the meeting, which was interrupted several times by other white residents who wanted to thank him and offer their support. “We have an issue with that part of town and they’ve been a bad part of town for a long time, sadly.”
McGrath also criticized the Justice Department’s analysis, which found that 85 percent of the people stopped by Ferguson officers were black despite making up only 67 percent of the population, and that whites made up just 15 percent of stops despite making up 29 percent of the population.
“A lot of the problems with that report is it’s just statistics,” said McGrath. “If you’re the guy pushing the guy to the hall of fame, you’re going to use the statistics that’s going to make him look like the best basketball player ever, and that’s what the report did.”
McGrath argued that the reason a higher percentage of traffic stops are of black drivers is because Ferguson has amenities that nearby municipalities don’t have. “Look at the racial makeup of all the communities around us,” he said. “They shop here because they don’t have a Walmart, Schnucks or Shop 'n Save.”
But a DOJ analysis of the summonses issued by the Ferguson Police Department over several years actually showed that the overall black population of the zip codes receiving summonses was lower than the black population in Ferguson -- just 63 percent, when weighted by population size and the number of summonses received by people who live it those zip codes. Federal investigators found there was “substantial reason to believe” that the percentage of black drivers in Ferguson is lower than the overall percentage of black drivers in the population.
Doyle McClellan, another white candidate for the seat, has written about the report on his website and criticized many components of it, calling the statistics “misleading” and the stories of residents “mostly unverified.” While he says that there are enough problematic anecdotes to show that the city has problems that need to be addressed, he does not believe the statistical analysis of stops and arrests by Justice Department proves anything.
“One thing that’s often overlooked in town is, it’s not just a white and black town. It’s a white middle class, a black middle class and a lower class that’s mostly African-American, and they have a very distinct characteristics,” McClellan said. “When you talk to a black/white homeowner, they’re worried about crime and their streets. Much of the black lower class, the problem they have is they tend to be in the rental homes in the higher-crime areas, so they have a very distinct situation compared to what the rest of the town experiences.”
The two other candidates, Adrienne Hawkins and Ella Jones, were supportive of more robust reform in the city. Councilman Mark Byrne, the other representative in Ward 1, attended the debate after the city council meeting behind closed doors. He said the council, which is set to meet on Tuesday, was still analyzing the Justice Department report so it could come up with a plan to address the issues it brought up.
“I think the Department of Justice report shed a light on something that we knew as a city since August 9th. We need change. We need to work together as a community to accomplish that change and it’s going to be difficult,” Byrne said in an interview.
“For those of us who were listening and paying attention, we are not surprised. Certainly, particular details of the report are going to surprise everyone. We have great citizens in this city and we have a duty and an obligation to make sure that greatness that we all see is seen by everyone else,” he said.
Byrne is opposed to folding the Ferguson Police Department and allowing another law enforcement agency to take over, and said it’s possible for it to stay afloat through reform.
“Disbanding a police department -- no, that’s not something I’m in favor of,” Byrne told HuffPost. “It is much easier for us to fix those issues on a smaller case-by-case basis, with a smaller police department and be the leader and example for every other municipality out there, than it is for us to start all over. I don’t think that is necessary.”
Ryan J. Reilly contributed to this report.