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Justice Department Exploring Legal Action Against Ferguson

In a unanimous vote, the council on Tuesday night moved to amend the proposed settlement the city had spent seven months negotiating with the DOJ.
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/ Source: The Associated Press

The Department of Justice is mulling legal action against the city of Ferguson, Missouri after the city council moved to make several major revisions to a proposed federal consent decree, changes that could save the city money but also appear to sidestep efforts to bring policing in the city in line with the Constitution.

The revisions called for by the Ferguson City Council, among other things, would require no mandate for payment of additional salary to police officers or jail staff, a cap on federal monitoring fees at $1 million and extended deadlines for the tentative agreement.

Just hours after the city council voted to approve the agreement, contingent upon the DOJ agreeing with changes made to a deal reached last month, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta balked.

Related: Ferguson Reaches Tentative Deal With Justice Department

“The Ferguson City Council has attempted to unilaterally amend the negotiated agreement. Their vote to do so creates an unnecessary delay in the essential work to bring constitutional policing to the city, and marks an unfortunate outcome for concerned community members and Ferguson police officers,” Gupta said in a statement. “The Department of Justice will take the necessary legal actions to ensure that Ferguson’s policing and court practices comply with the Constitution and relevant federal laws.”

The city of Ferguson has been embroiled in controversy since the killing of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown Jr. in August 2014 by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. A St. Louis grand jury later declined to indict Wilson in Brown’s death. The Justice Department also declined to file federal civil rights charges against Wilson. But during an investigation into the police department and municipal courts sparked by allegations of widespread misconduct and abuse, the Justice Department found a pattern of discriminatory practices.

Image: Ferguson votes to approve modified consent decree
Mike Brown Sr., center, listens to part of the public comment portion of the Ferguson city council meeting in Ferguson, Mo., on Feb. 9, 2016, when the consent decree with the Department of Justice was being talked about.David Carson / AP

In March 2015, following its months-long investigation, the Justice Department released a scathing report revealing widespread constitutional violations and a pattern of racial bias by the city’s police department and municipal courts. Federal investigators found that police routinely stopped and arrested black residents without cause, used unreasonable force and that the courts essentially used warrants, fines and fees issued to black people to balance the city’s budget.

The consent decree – which sets forth a set of agreed upon goals, mandates and reforms – was an option to help the city avoid a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice over its many apparent violations of federal law and the Constitution. The agreement would also mean the installation of a federal monitor within the police department as part of a tedious and costly federal oversight plan.

The cost of the proposed reforms could be as high as $3.7 million in the first year. That high cost, estimated by the city itself, sparked some speculation locally that city leaders inflated the price tag to give them a platform to reject the agreement, according to local news reports.

One of the city’s negotiators of the agreement, City Councilman Wesley Bell, said he remains hopeful that the city will be able to avoid a lengthy and costly court battle with the DOJ.

“The council wants to get this done,” Wesley Bell, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We did not get into these negotiations to turn around and have a lawsuit.”

Yet Tuesday’s vote to restructure major parts of the 131-page consent decree may very well trigger such a lawsuit, a costly endeavor that could plunge the city into financial chaos.

Related: Will New Law Solve Ferguson's Problems?

“In order to make sure this is a successful decree, we got to make sure that this something we can implement, something we can afford,” Ferguson Mayor James Knowles told USA Today.

The NAACP has called on Ferguson to accept the agreed upon deal as is, rejecting the notion that it is simply too costly to enact.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said local and state officials have used claims of insufficient funding to “elude legal mandates since time immemorial, including desegregation in the South, eliminating bias in hiring and training, improving prison conditions, and countless other civil rights advancements.”

“We reject this argument out of hand as an affront to democracy. All public institutions, including police departments, must operate in accordance with the U.S. Constitution,” Ifill said. “The Ferguson City Council must approve the proposed consent decree and work diligently and immediately to acquire the necessary funds to protect the lives and civil rights of all its residents, regardless of race.”

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