A team of Justice Department civil rights lawyers is planning to travel to Ferguson, Mo., in the coming weeks to meet with residents and help decide whether to reform the police department or disband it and replace it with a regional force, according to the head of the department’s civil rights division.
In her first wide-ranging interview since taking over the civil rights division last fall, acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta said that her lawyers want to ensure that the systemic racial bias and constitutional violations identified in the scathing Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department “don’t continue for a day longer than they should.”
“What kind of police department do Ferguson residents want?” said Gupta, a longtime civil rights lawyer and former deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “All of the options are on the table. And now, we’re going to roll up our sleeves and figure out, ‘what does this look like?’ Some of what has happened in the last week really demonstrates the urgency of putting together an agreement.”
Last week, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson said he will resign Thursday. The announcement came a day after Ferguson’s city manager resigned and two days after the city’s top municipal court judge also stepped aside. Shortly after Ferguson’s mayor announced Jackson’s resignation, two police officers were shot outside the police department.
Jeffrey Williams, 20, was arrested late Saturday and charged in the shooting. During a brief public appearance Monday at the St. Louis county courthouse, Williams told the judge he would seek private counsel and not use a public defender, according to Stephen Reynolds, who is the chief public defender in St. Louis County.
Williams had previously been on probation in relation to a felony charge of receiving stolen property.
On Monday morning, a woman who identified herself as Williams’s grandmother answered the door at the address listed as his home in court documents. She said Williams, who has two small children and a third on the way, did not graduate high school and did not have a steady job.
She said she last saw him on Friday and was concerned when she saw red marks across his face in his mug shot.
“The police beat him up,” she said, repeating an assertion made by a pastor and protest organizer who said he spoke with Williams. St. Louis County police have denied that Williams was beaten.
Williams’s grandmother said she was struggling to figure out how her grandson could have been accused of the shooting. “We raised him right.”
Gupta said the Justice Department “will flood the community in an intense way to make sure that we understand and are hearing from law enforcement leaders and line officers, city officials, and the community.
“Frankly, it isn’t for the Justice Department to decide what this looks like,” she said. “It’s for the city and the community in Ferguson to decide what they want. We think this could be done in a matter of months, but it depends on the ability of the city to engage with us in a serious way.”
If the Justice Department does not come to an agreement with the city of Ferguson about the future of the police department, it can sue to force change, as it has in other cases.
Gupta, only five months into the job, is well positioned to help lead negotiations with Ferguson city officials, a process that began after the fatal shooting in August of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American man, by a white Ferguson police officer.
The youngest of two daughters of Indian parents who immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s, Gupta has devoted her career to civil rights issues and criminal justice reform. She grew up in Philadelphia and went to Yale University, where she was co-chair of the Women’s Center and was also involved in labor and immigrant rights issues. (Her husband is the legal director of the D.C. Legal Aid Society.)
After graduating from New York University Law School, her first legal case for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund was an effort to win the release of 38 defendants in Tulia, Tex., whose drug convictions and long sentences were discredited by her legal team. Gov. Rick Perry in 2003 pardoned all of the defendants, and Gupta helped negotiate a $6 million settlement for the defendants.
Later, at the ACLU, she won a landmark settlement with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency on behalf of immigrant children detained at T. Don Hutto, a privately run detention center in Taylor, Tex., which ended “family detention” at the facility. On the wall of Gupta’s Justice Department office overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue are four pictures drawn by immigrant children she represented while they were held inside the Texas facility.
Her work in criminal justice reform has attracted, as she said, “unusual bedfellows.” Both Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, and David Keene, former president of the National Rifle Association, have praised Gupta, reflecting both her effort to listen to all sides and also a common ground that both liberals and conservatives are finding on issues such as prison reform.
Gupta, the mother of two young boys, is overseeing many other kinds of civil rights cases, including litigation on voting rights and on LGBT rights.
But the effort to reform Ferguson is getting the most attention, overshadowing even the division’s work to reform more than 20 other police departments in places such as Albuquerque, N.M.; East Haven, Conn.; Cleveland; and New Orleans.
“With the report on Ferguson,” said Gupta, “we’ve been able to paint a broader picture of what’s happening in this town’s criminal justice system that resonates with a lot of communities of color in the way that they experience courts and police around the country.”
Robert Samuels in Ferguson, Mo., contributed to this report.