To avoid a federal civil rights lawsuit, the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department (FPD) has reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) aimed at bringing much needed reform to law enforcement in the beleaguered city. According to Wednesday’s New York Times, the two sides have “reached the outlines of a deal that would force changes to the city’s police department” that will hopefully end decades of systematic abuses and structural racial bias within the force.
The DOJ investigation was launched after numerous allegations of widespread abuse and structural racial bias surfaced in the wake of the deadly police shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014. The Ferguson community grew deeply divided after the shooting and the city attorney’s subsequent decision not to charge the officer who Shot Brown, Darren Wilson, with murder. These events spurred numerous protests that the Ferguson police attempted to control with controversial militaristic methods.
The key reforms detailed in agreement include new training for law enforcement officers, upgrading and modernizing their recordkeeping, and installing a federal monitor who will ensure compliance with this agreement. It is not clear whether the deal will require Ferguson police officers to wear body cameras while on duty. Once it is finalized, the agreement will be filed in federal court once it is completed.
Ferguson officials were brought to the negotiating table by the devastating report released by the DOJ’s civil rights division on March 4, 2015, which detailed the way institutional racism permeates all facets of the police department of this former sundown town. The report chronicled what the town’s African-American residents have known through generations of experience: that the department’s use of excessive force targeted black suspects almost exclusively and the FPD systematically boosted city revenue by fleecing the city’s African American residents through unconstitutional stops and arrests resulting in excessive ticketing.
“Officers routinely conduct stops that have little relation to public safety and a questionable basis in law,” the report asserts with alarming specificity. “Issuing three or four charges in one stop is not uncommon. Officers sometimes write six, eight, or, in at least one instance, 14 citations for a single encounter.” Not surprisingly, the report also detailed how officers compete with each other to see who can issue more citations in one stop.
According to the New York Times, the agreement will cover comprehensive changes to Ferguson’s municipal court, as well. While it is rare for the DOJ to investigate a local court system, much less demand reforms within it, the Times article notes that the unique partnership between Ferguson’s court justified the DOJ’s investigation of the court system. Astonishingly, Ferguson’s municipal court “operates as an arm of the Police Department, not as an independent branch of the government” the Times reports.
While the agreement outline is less specific about what these changes will be, severing this current relationship seems like a good start, and the DOJ report makes a strong case for doing so. In fact, the report’s findings were shocking, as it detailed how the court systematically imposed unduly harsh penalties for failure to pay fines or missing court dates.
“In 2013 alone, the court issued over 9,000 warrants on cases stemming in large part from minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations,” according to the report. These are all violations, the report noted, for which jail time is “too harsh a penalty,” yet the Ferguson court “routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees.” In other words, the DOJ found a pattern the court jailing its residents for being poor.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles II seems optimistic, if not relieved, that the deal will work. “We have made tremendous progress. We’re very close,” Knowles said. “We’re at a point where we have addressed any necessary issues, and assuming it is not cost prohibitive, we would like to move forward.”
Knowles also added that his administration has been proactive in starting these reforms on their own, namely with an expansion of community policing and reforms to the municipal court. In his comments, Knowles also seems to anticipate resistance from other Ferguson city officials, lofting a preemptive strike toward those who might oppose the settlement.
Here, he warned that the city’s financial resources would be better spent improving the police department than defending itself in a federal lawsuit: “To me, fighting that at this point does what? The idea that we want to spend millions to fight something when we could spend half a million or whatever on equipment and training? That’s what we have to do.”
The DOJ also issued its own press release, emphasizing the importance of a federal monitor and that expediting this settlement is critical to the city’s progress. “The talks with the city of Ferguson to develop a monitored consent decree have been product,” DOJ spokeswoman Dena Iverson announced. “The department believes that in order to remedy the Justice Department’s findings, an agreement needs to be reached without delay.”
From this statement, it is clear that the DOJ is concerned that Ferguson city officials may drag their feet on voting to approve the deal. City Council member Brian Fletcher seemed to justify such concern with his reaction to the news: “I, for one, am very skeptical and still have a great concern about the monetary costs to the city.”
These costs could be substantial. The Times estimates that a federal monitor will cost the city at least $350,000 in the first year. It stands to reason that the costs for training and equipment will be significant, as well. These monetary concerns are intensified by the fact that the city accrued a $2.5 million operating deficit last year. Interestingly, this deficit is partly due to the dramatic drop in traffic fines and fees that occurred once the DOJ launched its investigation. Additionally, the city’s legal expenses and overtime pay escalated during the protests over Michael Brown’s shooting.
Still, as Mayor Knowles reasoned, what the city spends to implement these reforms will surely pale in comparison to both the financial and public relations costs of defending the city in a federal lawsuit. For decades, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu has preached that “freedom is cheaper than oppression.” Ferguson’s city officials are now learning that lesson.