Ferguson mayor James Knowles III, (second from left) speaks during a city council meeting on Feb. 2. The meeting was the first opportunity for residents to speak directly with city leaders about the preliminary consent agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. — Jeff Roberson/AP
The city council of Ferguson, Mo., agreed late Monday to implement intensive changes to the city’s police department and court system, under a consent decree negotiated by city officials with the U.S. Justice Department. But, concerned about the price tag, the council made some changes.
If Ferguson and the Justice Department don’t agree on all the terms, federal prosecutors could file a civil rights lawsuit, which could prove more costly than the reforms, the Associated Press reported.
The Justice Department responded quickly with dismay. In a statement, Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said:
“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. Both parties engaged in thoughtful negotiations over many months to create an agreement with cost-effective remedies that would ensure Ferguson brings policing and court practices in line with the Constitution. The agreement already negotiated by the department and the city will provide Ferguson residents a police department and municipal court that fully respects civil rights and operates free from racial discrimination.
“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.”
As the Two-Way previously reported, the package includes a number of facets, and would require the city to submit to independent monitoring.
The 127-page proposed agreement creates guidelines for training police officers on issues such as when they should use force and how to “reorient Ferguson’s use-of-force policies toward de-escalation and avoiding force.” The agreement also requires body-worn cameras and an overhaul of the municipal court system.
The implementation of the plan is expected to be pricey. The AP reports that “the city estimates it would cost $2.2 million to $3.7 million to implement the agreement in the first year, and $1.8 million to $3 million in the second and third years.”
The AP also reports:
“Councilman Wesley Bell, who proposed the changes, said he was confident the Department of Justice would agree.
“‘I don’t think there’s anything unreasonable,’ Bell said.”
The biggest change made by the council was dropping an increase in police officers’ salaries; officials believe that would also require higher firefighter salaries, at a cost to the city of $1 million, the AP reported. The amended plan will require Justice Department approval, but the city said it would begin making many of the changes immediately.
The approval of the amended document came at the end of a raucous city council meeting, at which many attendees voiced their support for the agreement as-is.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that audience member Kayla Reed said if the city had enough money to buy and use tear gas on protesters, it has enough money to follow the Justice Department’s requirements.
The price tag prompted some in the community to urge the council to reject the agreement, arguing that the plan could bankrupt Ferguson, which has an annual budget of $14.5 million, according to the AP.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, however, said in a statement on Tuesday that cost should not be a prohibiting factor and urged the council to vote yes.
“We encourage Ferguson officials to think creatively about how to meet the costs of implementation of the proposed consent decree,” Monique Dixon, LDF’s Deputy Director and Senior Counsel said in the statement. “This may include consulting with other cities that have successfully implemented similar consent decrees, accepting any free technical assistance from the DOJ, and applying for state or federal grants.”
The Justice Department began an investigation into Ferguson after white police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, on August 9, 2014. Wilson was later cleared by a St. Louis County grand jury and by the Justice Department. After the decision, the Justice Department opened an investigation into Ferguson’s police department. The consent decree was the product of the months of negotiation between the city and the DOJ.
At the city council meeting Tuesday night, citizens weighed in on the proposed plan, some claiming it was too costly to implement; others arguing it was too costly not to. Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., attended the meeting wearing a sweatshirt that read “Justice for Mike Brown,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.