Ferguson Is Defiant Again in Deal With Justice Department

February 10, 2016 Updated: February 10, 2016

FERGUSON, Mo.—Defiance has often defined Ferguson in the 18 months since a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown and provoked an examination of how poor people and minorities are treated in the St. Louis suburb.

The latest defiant act—rejecting some parts of a Justice Department agreement to reform the city’s police and courts—could result in an expensive court battle.

Justice Department and Ferguson officials spent seven months negotiating before reaching a deal announced in January. But after a detailed financial analysis pegged the potential cost at up to $3.7 million in the first year alone, the Ferguson City Council had second thoughts.

On Tuesday, the council voted 6-0 to approve an amended version that asks the federal government to change seven provisions in the agreement to keep the city solvent.

We’re not trying to reopen negotiations. We tried to tell them what the city council will agree to.
— James Knowles III, mayor, Ferguson
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III (C) talks to the media after the Ferguson, Mo., city council meeting in Ferguson on Feb. 9, 2016, where the council voted to approve a modified consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III (C) talks to the media after the Ferguson, Mo., city council meeting in Ferguson on Feb. 9, 2016, where the council voted to approve a modified consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

“We’re not trying to reopen negotiations. We tried to tell them what the city council will agree to,” Mayor James Knowles III said Wednesday in an interview. If the Justice Department opts to sue Ferguson, “we’ll have to deal with that in court.”

A civil rights lawsuit could cost Ferguson more than the reforms. Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement that the department would take “the necessary legal actions” to ensure

In an interview this week with The Associated Press, Attorney General Loretta Lynch called the proposed settlement thorough and fair, and said she hoped it would be approved in order to avoid litigation.

Brown, 18, who was black and unarmed, was fatally shot Aug. 9, 2014, by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson during a street confrontation. Wilson was cleared of wrongdoing by a St. Louis County grand jury and the Justice Department, and he later resigned.

But a separate Justice Department investigation resulted in a report critical of police and court practices in Ferguson, leading to the proposed deal known as a consent decree.

Ferguson’s top officials have shown defiance from the start. Days after Brown’s death, then-Police Chief Tom Jackson released surveillance video showing Brown’s involvement in a theft at a small grocery store just moments before the shooting, with the burly teenager pushing the store owner. The video’s release only heightened anger among protesters.

Protesters chant and yell after the Ferguson, Mo., city council meeting in Ferguson on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, where the council voted to approve a modified consent decree with the United States Department of Justice. It is unclear if the Department of Justice will agree to the modifications.  (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)
Protesters chant and yell after the Ferguson, Mo., city council meeting in Ferguson on Feb. 9, 2016, where the council voted to approve a modified consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

Knowles has defended Ferguson. Even as protesters and civil rights leaders called for reforms, the mayor noted that Ferguson was already making changes to municipal court practices aimed at easing the burden on people accused of minor violations. In fact, city revenue from court fees and fines has declined by hundreds of thousands of dollars since the shooting.

Knowles said the seven amendments to the agreement were formulated after a recent financial analysis showed the deal was so expensive it could lead to dissolution of Ferguson. The analysis suggested that the first-year cost of the agreement would be $2.2 million to $3.7 million, with second- and third-year costs between $1.8 million and $3 million in each year.

Ferguson has an operating budget of $14.5 million and already faces a $2.8 million deficit. Voters will be asked to approve two tax hikes in April, but approval of both would still leave the city short.

Once the financial analysis was done over and over again, the numbers we were talking about were unachievable.
— James Knowles III, mayor, Ferguson

“Once the financial analysis was done over and over again, the numbers we were talking about were unachievable,” Knowles said.

A big part of the cost was the requirement that Ferguson raise police salaries to attract better candidates, including more minority officers. Removal of the pay-raise clause was among the seven amendments.

Another new provision states that the agreement will not apply to any other governmental entity that might take over duties currently provided by Ferguson. That means, for example, that St. Louis County would not be beholden to the agreement if it takes over policing in Ferguson.

St. Louis County police have said they would not take over policing in Ferguson if subjected to terms of the Justice Department agreement. Knowles doesn’t believe neighboring departments would, either.

It’s not uncommon for local governments to seek changes to agreements even after negotiations, but the overwhelming majority of investigations still end up in a settlement.

Samuel Bagenstos, the former No. 2 official at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, warned that the federal agency “is serious about bringing a lawsuit if they don’t get a deal.”

“If Ferguson insists on making significant changes to the deal they’ve already worked out, that’s probably not going to work out well for them,” said Bagenstos, now a law professor at the University of Michigan. “And I think at the end of the day, Ferguson understands that, and we’ll probably see a deal pretty soon.”

The Justice Department has initiated more than 20 civil rights investigations into law enforcement agencies in the last six years, including in Baltimore and Chicago. In the last 18 months, the department has reached settlements with police departments that included Cleveland and Albuquerque.

There have been occasional disagreements.

In 2012, the Justice Department sued Maricopa County, Arizona, after failing to reach agreement on allegations that the sheriff’s office targeted Latinos with discriminatory stops and arrests. County officials voted in July to settle parts of that lawsuit.

The federal government also sued North Carolina’s Alamance County following an investigation that alleged biased policing practices against Latinos there. But a federal judge last August ruled in the county’s favor, saying the Justice Department failed to prove the sheriff ordered deputies to target Hispanic residents. That case is on appeal.