Justice Department suing Ferguson over police conduct, attorney general says
(Feb. 10, 2016) — [Breaking news alert, posted at 5:53 p.m. ET Wednesday]
The U.S. Justice Department is filing a lawsuit against the city of Ferguson, Missouri, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Wednesday. The lawsuit alleges a pattern and practice of unconstitutional police conduct in the city.
Federal authorities had no other choice but to file a lawsuit against the city after the Ferguson City Council voted to change the terms of a consent decree, Lynch said.
“We intend to aggressively prosecute this case,” she told reporters, “and we intend to prevail.”
“The 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,” Lynch said. “They should not be forced to wait any longer.”
A city spokesman told CNN that officials will have no comment about the Justice Department’s lawsuit until Thursday.
[Previous story, posted at 2:43 p.m. ET Wednesday]
Federal court might be the next stop for Ferguson, Missouri, after the City Council voted to change an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to reform its police force and municipal court system.
In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, council members approved the deal — but only if the Justice Department accepts seven amendments.
The Justice Department wasn’t expecting any changes to the negotiated deal and wasted little time in responding.
“The Ferguson City Council has attempted to unilaterally amend the negotiated agreement,” Vanita Gupta, head of the agency’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. “Their vote to do so creates an unnecessary delay in the essential work to bring constitutional policing to the city, and marks an unfortunate outcome for concerned community members and Ferguson police officers.”
The national spotlight on Ferguson began after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in August 2014. Brown, who was unarmed, was black, and Wilson is white. Brown’s death prompted days of protests and riots in Ferguson and a national conversation about the role of race in police interactions with citizens.
Last March, the Justice Department determined the Ferguson Police Department had demonstrated a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against African-Americans, targeting them disproportionately for traffic stops, use of force and jail sentences.
Reaction to the vote was mixed, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
One activist, Debra Kennedy, called the public hearings “a farce, because the DOJ is not going to go back and renegotiate,” the newspaper reported. “It was like a ‘no’ vote.”
Others chanted, “You can’t amend justice,” according to the Post-Dispatch.
Seven months of negotiation
The agreement that City Council wants to change was negotiated over seven months between the city and the Justice Department.
“Although we did not get everything we wanted in the agreement, we certainly made sure that what was agreed upon can be implemented in a timely and sufficient manner,” Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said of the consent decree the city received January 26.
In its response, the Justice Department didn’t appear to be in a mood to renegotiate.
“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.
“We’re not trying to take away any safeguards,” Knowles told CNN affiliate KMOV. “We’re not trying to take away anything substantive out of the decree.”
City Councilwoman Ella James agreed.
“There are some things in the consent decree that we’re asking to be amended, but all in all I think we’re moving forward, we’re moving in a positive direction,” she told CNN affiliate KTVI.
What City Council wants
The original agreement would require the city to hire additional senior staff dedicated to the implementation of the deal and in areas such as crisis intervention and community-police relations. Other costs to the city of Ferguson would include the creation of an electronic complaint tracking system, an early intervention system and training throughout various levels of the police department.
In its amendments, the City Council demanded the following changes in order for the decree to go into effect:
- That it contains no mandate for the payment of additional salary to police or other city employees.
- That it contains no mandate for staffing at the city’s jail.
- That the deadlines set forth are extended.
- That the terms do not apply to other agencies that take over services currently provided by the city.
- That a provision for local preference in contractors and consultants is included.
- That goals for minority and women participation in consulting, oversight and third-party services are included.
- That monitoring fee caps are changed to $1 million over the first five years and no more than $250,000 in any single year.
‘Just sign it’
Spirited public input preceded Tuesday night’s vote.
“Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” chanted one community member.
Another suggested it was time to wrap up this chapter in the city’s history.
“It’s time to stop. Just go and sign the decree. You still haven`t settled the Mike Brown settlement,” he said. “Get it done. Just sign it.”
Brown’s parents filed a wrongful death suit against the city in April.
Justice Department found pattern of discrimination
The 102-page report issued by the Justice Department last March said some Ferguson police officers saw residents as “sources of revenue,” leading to practices that federal investigators said disproportionately targeted black residents.
It also found evidence of racist jokes sent by some Ferguson police officers and court officials.
The department made 26 recommendations, including:
- Ferguson police provide training to ensure officers aren’t using bias in policing.
- Officers practice community policing by getting out of cars and getting to know communities.
- Focus police stops, searches and ticketing on protecting the public, as opposed to fund-raising for the city.
Also in March, the Justice Department declined to bring civil rights charges against Wilson in Brown’s death. Justice Department investigators concluded Brown was moving toward the officer when Wilson fired.
A grand jury also declined to indict Wilson, who left the force in November 2014.