Audit: Ferguson courts 'in disarray' after police killing

Court and city personnel described as uncooperative and 'at times combative'

By Jim Salter
Associated Press

ST. LOUIS (AP) - An audit launched in the wake of unrest following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson found the city's court system "in disarray" and disorganized, according to a report released Wednesday by the Missouri state auditor.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway was in St. Louis to release details of the audit, which gave Ferguson courts a "poor" rating - the lowest available rating. The performance was so bad, Galloway said, that her office will conduct a follow-up review later this year.

Among the problems cited: Files stored in an unsecured storage garage and damaged by water and mold; uncooperative and "at times combative" court and city personnel that caused delays in access to files; and $26,000 in illegal fees charged to residents.

"Considering the lack of cooperation my staff experienced in their official roles as representatives of my office, I can only imagine how average citizens are treated when they are trying to get information about their cases or resolution on serious issues," Galloway said in a statement.

In the city's official response, Ferguson officials said they disagreed with many of the findings in the audit, which mostly covered the fiscal year ending June 30, 2015. The city noted several court reforms were implemented soon after the shooting, but argues its files were never disorganized.

"The municipal division is currently maintaining both manual case files and electronic case files in an accurate, complete, and organized manner and did so during the audit period," the response states.

Brown, who was black, was 18 and unarmed when he was fatally shot by white Ferguson officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014, following a confrontation in a neighborhood street. Wilson was eventually cleared of wrongdoing and resigned in November 2014.

But the shooting resulted in sometimes violent protests and scrutiny of the St. Louis suburb's police and court system. A review by the U.S. Department of Justice found biased treatment of blacks by Ferguson's police and accused the municipal court of making money on the backs of poor and minority residents. Last year, the city settled a lawsuit with the Justice Department that requires additional reforms under supervision of a monitor team.

Galloway said her office's audit also found that court records were kept in several places: A storage garage, the police and courts building, and City Hall. Galloway said there was no process to track the location of records, and they were not stored in secure areas, even though some of the information included personal information of those in court, including social security and driver's license numbers.

Auditors were often told by city personnel that files could not be accessed or that they were too damaged from water and mold to read, Galloway said. In fact, she said, her office took what she called an unprecedented step of hiring a mold remediation company to recover and preserve the records.

Ferguson said in its response that the mold was the result a roof leak during a period of heavy rain in 2014.

Some records were never recovered, Galloway said, presumably because they were lost or misplaced. Enough records were uncovered to show that at least $1,400 in cash was missing, "but the careless way these records were kept may prevent us from ever knowing the total amount," she said.

Galloway said the electronic case management system did not include safeguards to "prevent inappropriate adjustments or to ensure only authorized staff could access court records."

The audit also found that over the course of one year, $26,000 in illegal fees were paid to the court for costs such as a $15 "letter fee" and a $50 "warrant recall fee." The court also charged a $75 "non-prosecution fee" for those who made an initial report but eventually declined to seek charges.

Published: Thu, Apr 27, 2017