Ferguson’s city council on Tuesday reversed course and approved an agreement with the Justice Department that calls for policy revisions and more training at the city’s police department to resolve claims that officers routinely violated the rights of black citizens.
The council voted unanimously to approve the agreement, a move that would ostensibly help the city avoid a protracted and costly court battle with the feds. In Ferguson, though, it’s hard to say if it will stick. The department and the city had seemingly reached the same agreement in January, but the council unexpectedly refused to approve it without changes last month. That prompted the Justice Department to file a lawsuit alleging pervasive misconduct, and council members soon reconsidered the original deal.
If city officials now abide by the terms, police officers will be trained to de-escalate confrontations and avoid the use of force except where necessary. Court and police staff would also receive bias-awareness training, and the city would implement new policies to ensure that the police department’s “stop, search and arrest” practices do not discriminate on the basis of race. At Tuesday’s meeting, council members hailed it as a step forward but said much work was left to do.
The council’s vote is the latest in a long saga began when a Ferguson 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.”
The agreement, which still must be approved by a judge, will settle the Justice Department’s lawsuit against the city and head off potentially expensive litigation. When they declined previously to approve the agreement, city officials had worried it would force them to take on costs they could not afford. The Justice Department did not agree to any changes, though a city spokesman has said the council members’ concerns were allayed by a letter city’s mayor received from Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta offering generic reassurances.
“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.”
A livestream of Tuesday’s meeting showed a few dozen people in attendance, and virtually all seemed supportive of the agreement.
Gupta, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement that Ferguson had taken “an important step towards guaranteeing all of its citizens the protections of our Constitution.”
“We are pleased that they have approved the consent decree, a document designed to provide the framework needed to institute constitutional policing in Ferguson, and look forward to filing it in court in the coming days and beginning to work with them towards implementation,” Gupta said.