Ferguson’s city council will reconsider approving an agreement with the Justice Department to resolve claims that its police officers routinely violated the rights of black citizens, and a city spokesman said Monday it is “more than likely” to pass.
The action – though not guaranteed — would be significant, allowing the city to avoid a protracted court battle with the Justice Department. The department and the city had seemingly reached an agreement in January that would have required the city police department to improve its policies and train officers to de-escalate confrontations. But the council unexpectedly refused to approve the agreement without changes last month, and the Justice Department responded with a lawsuit alleging pervasive misconduct.
Jeff Small, a spokesman for the city of Ferguson, said council members will take up the original agreement again at a meeting Tuesday. “I would say it is likely to pass, more than likely,” Small said. He said while the Justice Department had not agreed to any changes, city officials felt more at ease because of a letter the city’s mayor received from Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta on Friday offering broad reassurances that the Justice Department was committed to working with the city. Gupta heads the department’s civil rights division.
“I think the way that the city leaders feel is it kind of puts the ball back in their court in the sense that if, during the implementation of this, the city runs into these road blocks and then seeks out the assistance, or makes a call for help in whatever manner, and that doesn’t not come through, well, then I think that’s up to the public to weigh in on that,” Small said.
The city of Ferguson’s decision to reconsider the agreement with the federal government was first reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
The Justice Department’s lawsuit against Ferguson is the latest in a long saga that began when a city police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014. The shooting sparked significant civil unrest and multiple investigations. While Justice Department officials did not find grounds to prosecute the officer who shot Brown, they did find broader problems in the city, including a focus on generating revenue that meant officials never tried to “decrease or eliminate police misconduct, including discriminatory policing, unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests, and the use of unreasonable force.”
Ferguson tentatively agreed to a host of changes in January, including establishing programs to promote interactions between the police and youth and changing the city code so it would not impose on those most vulnerable. But when the council voted the following month, they decided not to approve it without changing some deadlines and stripping a provision that would mandate salary increases for police officers.
Small said the city is facing a $3 million deficit without the agreement, and council members were concerned about taking on more, costly endeavors. When they vote Tuesday, though, the agreement will not change. They will be doing so only with the assurance from Gupta that the department will work with city leaders on funding issues that might arise.
“The Department has a strong interest in ensuring the sustainability of the reforms in our consent decrees and we understand that sustainability often, as a practical matter, requires attention to the financial condition of the local jurisdiction during the implementation stage,” Gupta wrote. “It is not uncommon for financial or staffing challenges to arise in the course of implementation of our consent decrees.”
If the council accepts the agreement, that will not dismiss the department’s lawsuit. Rather, it will serve as a settlement to the allegations and would be subject to approval by a judge.