DOJ Sues Ferguson After Council Votes to Revise Consent Decree

Stephen Deere, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 10, 2016

The U.S. Department of Justice accused Ferguson of numerous constitutional violations in a 56-page lawsuit filed Wednesday, saying that the City Council had in fact rejected a proposed agreement the night before–despite Ferguson officials’ repeated claims to the contrary.

At a meeting on Tuesday, the Ferguson City Council approved a revised version of a consent decree it had worked out with the department, but one revision eliminated the so-called “poison pill” clause that made the decree apply to any other agency providing policing in Ferguson.

That change would have allowed Ferguson to circumvent most of the decree by disbanding its police department.

At a news conference Wednesday, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III insisted that the City Council had “unanimously voted in favor of the most expansive and comprehensive consent decree issued to date.”

Two hours later and 800 miles away in Washington, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch also stood before reporters, taking issue with Knowles’ description.

“The City Council rejected the consent decree approved by their own negotiators,” she said. “Their decision leaves us no further choice.”

Lynch referenced the Justice Department investigation that began shortly after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. It “uncovered a community in distress, in which residents felt under assault by their own police force,” she said.

She said the police department’s violations were expansive, deliberate, egregious and routine.

The lawsuit mirrors a 105-page report the Justice Department published in March, detailing patterns in the police department of illegal stops, searches, and arrests, driven partly by racial bias.

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The Justice Department and Ferguson spent 26 weeks in painstaking negotiations reviewing every detail of the consent decree, a 131-page document with hundreds of requirements, Lynch said.

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In her remarks on Wednesday, Lynch said Ferguson residents had waited decades for justice and “should not be forced to wait any longer.”

But at the public hearings on the decree, residents were divided. Some believed the decree would bankrupt Ferguson, forcing it to dissolve.

“I would rather lose our city by fighting for it in court, than lose it by giving in to the DOJ’s crushing demands,” said Susan Ankenbrand, who moved to Ferguson 41 years ago, partly because she wanted to live in a diverse community.

At the news conference, Knowles said such comments influenced the city’s decision.

“There is no reason to enter into an agreement that we know we cannot live up to,” he said.

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At a public hearing on Saturday, Finance Director Jeffrey Blume said the decree could cost the city $2.1 million to $3.7 million in the first year, and more than $10 million over three years. But much of that estimate was based on a clause in the agreement that required police officers’ pay to be among the “most competitive” with similarly sized cities.

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Ferguson Attorney Dan K. Webb said Saturday that a lawsuit would last three to four years, and estimated legal expenses would be $4 million to $8 million.

“The assessment is, as the agreement currently stands, it will cost more to implement the agreement than it would be to fight it in a lawsuit,” Knowles said Wednesday.

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The City Council enacted some municipal court reforms contained in the decree, as a sign of good faith, before voting to send the agreement back to the Justice Department with revisions.

Gov. Jay Nixon applauded those actions, despite the lawsuit.

“I served as attorney general of this state for 16 years,” Nixon told the Post-Dispatch. “I’m extremely familiar with the process and the myriad of issues in which federal consent decrees are attempted. Philosophically, I’ve never been a huge fan of them.”

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Jeff Rainford, former chief of staff for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, said Ferguson residents deserve a police department of which they are not afraid, but the proposed consent decree could place a great financial burden on the people it is supposed to help.

“The majority of the citizens who are going to pay for this are African-American . . . the people whose rights were supposedly violated,” Rainford said, adding that any solution will be complicated.

And on Wednesday, as the federal government bore down on the small city with credibility problems, any good faith seemed to have evaporated.

At her news conference, Lynch characterized Ferguson’s decision as “profoundly disappointing.”

A reporter questioned if that description was accurate. “You seemed rather fired up,” he said.

Lynch declined to elaborate further about how she felt.

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