The Department of Justice filed a 56-page lawsuit against the city of Ferguson on Wednesday afternoon, citing “a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”
The lawsuit came one day after the Ferguson City Council approved a revised version of a consent decree it had worked out with the department. The consent decree was meant to address problems with the city’s police department and municipal court detailed after an extensive investigation last year. The investigation followed the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown and the unrest that followed.
The Justice Department had immediately said the city’s revisions to the consent decree would probably be challenged.
The lawsuit against Ferguson was filed in federal court in St. Louis.
It alleges that Ferguson officials use illegally practices in conducting stops, searches and arrests; by using excessive force; by interfering with the right to free expression; in the prosecution and resolution of municipal charges; and in discriminating against African Americans.
The suit asks the court to force the city “to adopt and implement policies, procedures, and mechanisms that identify, correct, and prevent the unlawful conduct.”
Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the suit had been filed at a press conference in Washington.
“The residents of Ferguson have waited nearly a year for their city to adopt an agreement that would protect their rights and keep them safe,” Lynch said in a prepared statement. “They have waited nearly a year for their police department to accept rules that would ensure their constitutional rights and that thousands of other police departments follow every day. They have waited nearly a year for their municipal courts to commit to basic, reasonable rules and standards. But residents of Ferguson have suffered the deprivation of their constitutional rights — the rights guaranteed to all Americans — for decades. They have waited decades for justice. They should not be forced to wait any longer.”
The next chapter of Ferguson’s dealings with the U.S. Department of Justice will likely play out in court, as the City Council on Tuesday night decided to rebuff a proposed agreement to reform its police department and court.
The city proclaimed that the decision amounted to approving a consent decree that it had spent months negotiating with the department, arguing that seven suggested changes were among hundreds of requirements to which the city had agreed.
But one of the proposed amendments would wipe out much of the decree in the event that Ferguson disbanded its police force.
The Justice Department’s reaction was swift. In a statement, Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, said city leaders unilaterally amended the agreement after months of talks.
“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,” Gupta said.
The unanimous vote came after the third public hearing on the agreement and on the 18-month anniversary of the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an event that sparked numerous protest and a federal investigation.
The meeting drew another huge crowd, this time to the Ferguson Community Center with room for a much larger attendance than the 120-person capacity of City Hall.
Brown’s father stood briefly in the back of the room, watching as the council heard comments from the public. He left before the vote.
One provision in the decree, which the city released to the public two weeks ago, says that all the requirements would apply to any agency that took over policing in Ferguson. By removing that stipulation, Ferguson could disband its police force and sidestep a large part of the agreement.
In an interview after the meeting, Councilman Wesley Bell acknowledged the change was significant, but said the tight deadline under which the city was operating left Ferguson little choice but to ask the provision be removed.
“If we get to the point where we have to disband our police department, which honestly I don’t see happening, but let’s say it does happen, no department is going to take us on with those conditions without charging twice as much,” Bell said. “It’s not a ‘no’ on the provision. It’s, ‘Let’s talk about the provision. Let’s figure out something we can all live with that actually makes sense.'”
The council’s decision was made in light of advice from lawyer Dan K. Webb, who warned that the justice department would sue the city if it did not approve the agreement.
“In my mind, there’s no chance the DOJ will not file a lawsuit,” said Webb at a public hearing on Saturday.
The 131-page decree is by all accounts the most onerous ever for a city of Ferguson’s size. And in recent days, some experts have been skeptical that a city of 21,000, with a budget of $14.5 million, could carry out all the reforms. The city faced a $2.8 million deficit this year.
Many residents have said the agreement could force the city’s dissolution.
Last March, the Justice Department released the findings from an investigation into Ferguson’s police department and municipal court. It described numerous constitutional violations — searches without reasonable suspicion, arrests without probable cause and force used unnecessarily.
The DOJ also accused Ferguson of using its criminal justice system as a source of revenue.
The two parties negotiated for months. Then two weeks ago, the city released the agreement, which contained extensive reforms — new use-of-force policies for police, hours of additional training for officers, body camera requirements and a plan for community policing.
The city estimated the cost of the Justice Department proposal could range from $2.1 million to $3.7 million in the first year. But much of that estimate was based on a clause in the agreement that required officers pay be among the “most competitive” with similarly sized cities.
At a hearing on Saturday, Finance Director Jeffrey Blume told the crowd that the clause would mandate 25 percent raises for police officers, possibly triggering raises for other employees.
The statement prompted many to speculate that Ferguson was inflating the figures and positioning itself to vote the decree down.
The city has proposed removing the “most competitive” clause from the agreement.
The council met for an hour before the meeting Tuesday night in closed session. Within minutes of the vote, Ferguson public relations representatives issued a news release announcing the unanimous decision on the consent decree with the seven revisions.
After the vote on the consent decree, the council voted to appoint Laverne Mitchom to an open seat. The seat was vacated about a month ago, when Councilman Brian Fletcher, a former Ferguson mayor, died of a heart attack.
Despite the revisions, the council began implementing some ordinances required in the decree as a sign of good faith. “We believe we don’t need an agreement to start moving forward on these reforms,” Bell said.
The reaction to the vote was mixed. One group took to the halls of the community center with chants that included “You can’t amend justice.”
Debra Kennedy, a protester who has attended council meetings since Brown’s death, called the public hearings “a farce, because the DOJ is not going to go back and renegotiate.”
“It was like a no vote,” she said.
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