But Shaw leaving his position is a major change in Ferguson, because the city manager is the city’s chief executive, responsible for supervising the police department, overseeing every other department and appointing the municipal judge. The city manager also serves indefinitely, or until the city council votes him or her out.
On Tuesday night, the seven members of the Ferguson City Council voted unanimously to part ways with Shaw, effective immediately.
“We appreciate John’s service and commitment to the city of Ferguson for the past eight years,” Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, who is on the council, said in a statement. “The City Council and John Shaw feel as though it is the appropriate time for the city to move forward as it begins its search for a new city manager.”
In a letter released by the city Tuesday, Shaw announced that he had decided to step down after eight years in the position.
“I care deeply for this community, and I believe that with our coming municipal election it is the appropriate time for the city to experience change in its city manager,” he wrote in the letter.
While he was careful to note that he has worked with the Justice Department on finding areas to improve, he took issue with the report’s assertion that racial bias was at play in the city’s actions.
“I must state clearly that my office has never instructed the police department to target African Americans, nor falsify charges to administer fines, nor heap abuses on the backs of the poor,” he wrote. “Any inferences of that kind from the report are simply false.”
The Justice Department’s report said the city’s police and court practices have an undue impact on African Americans and also stated that “there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race.” Investigators said that city officials urge police officers and court staff to deliver revenue above all else, adding that this focus on money “has a profound effect” on how the police force operates.
“This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community,” the report stated.
Shaw is quoted in the report applauding messages from the police chief about the city’s revenue. One e-mail shows Shaw, after being told about the city’s court revenue surpassing $2 million in a single year, responding with “Awesome!” After another e-mail describing lengthy lines of people waiting to pay off fines, Shaw is described as congratulating the police force and court staff for “great work.”
In another portion of the report, an unnamed city council member asked that Ferguson’s former municipal judge, Ronald J. Brockmeyer, who was also singled out for criticism in the report, not be reappointed. (Shaw was responsible for nominating Brockmeyer, who was in his position before Shaw obtained his, to a two-year term, but the city council had to elect him.)
The council member is quoted as saying that while replacing Brockmeyer would mean a loss of revenue, it would also mean that cases would be “handled properly and fairly.” In response, Shaw is described as acknowledging “mixed reviews” of Brockmeyer’s work before stating that it “goes without saying” that the city can’t afford to a decrease in fines.
In his letter Tuesday, Shaw said he was proud of the things that city residents and officials have done to make Ferguson “a better place to live,” pointing to economic development actions, social programs and infrastructure improvements.
Ultimately, though, his letter turned to actions he said he has taken since Ferguson became a national flash-point last year after Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old. The city became the epicenter of a national debate over policing and race, while the actions of its police force and court system were derided by protesters and, eventually, the Justice Department.
“Over the last several months I have done everything in my power to work with countless groups to bring about positive change and strengthen our community,” he wrote. He added: “I have worked with numerous activists and community leaders to make the City a true partner in projects designed to move our community forward.”
In a news release, the city said that his current duties would be divided among Ferguson’s city departments while a nationwide search is carried out.
“I’ve known John for several years and I wish him luck with future endeavors as we continue to work through the necessary steps to become a community of choice for all of our residents,” Dwayne T. James, a Ferguson City Council member, said in a statement released by the city.
And the announcement of Shaw’s departure came a day after the Missouri Supreme Court said that in an “extraordinary action,” it was placing a state judge in charge of cases in Ferguson.
Missouri Chief Justice Mary R. Russell called that change necessary to allow for needed reforms in Ferguson’s court system, which the Justice Department had called harmful and focused solely on boosting revenue. In an order signed by Russell and approved by the full court, Judge Roy L. Richter of the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals was moved to the St. Louis County circuit court and ordered to “restore the integrity of the system” in Ferguson.
Brockmeyer, the municipal judge who was criticized in the Justice Department’s report for creating court fees that were described as “abusive and may be unlawful,” said Monday that he was leaving his post in Ferguson.
This post has been updated. First published: 8:55 p.m.