- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Justice Department sued Ferguson, Missouri, after city officials there demanded changes in an agreement meant to overhaul the city’s criminal justice system and to resolve an investigation into civil rights abuses following the 2014 shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch announced Wednesday.

The swift reaction comes after the Ferguson City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to send the agreement back to the Justice Department with seven new conditions, a move Ms. Lynch said was tantamount to a rejection of the agreement given the “painstaking negotiations” that went into the pact.

Though Ferguson officials have raised concern over the potential high cost of the reform effort — implementation costs in just the first year could reach $3.7 million, or a quarter of the city’s budget — Ms. Lynch said Wednesday that the blame for the lawsuit was squarely on the shoulders of city leaders.

“We were sensitive to costs, those discussions were had,” Ms. Lynch said of the seven-month-long negotiation process for the consent decree. “The city was well aware that by deciding not to accept it, that they were choosing litigation. This is their choice.”

Ferguson became a federal focus for reform in the wake of the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Mr. Wilson, who has since left the force, was not charged in Brown’s death.

But riots and protests in the aftermath of Brown’s death drew attention to the city’s largely white police department and municipal court, which the Justice Department later determined had engaged in a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against black Ferguson residents.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, starkly accuses the city of a pattern of racial profiling and unnecessary force. In one 2012 incident described in the complaint, officials say a Ferguson officer arrested a woman after she protested the detention of one of her employees and threatened to complain to the police chief. In a 2010 incident, the complaint states police used a stun gun against a black woman in the Ferguson jail after she refused to remove her bracelets.

The complaint states that the city’s “routine violation of constitutional and statutory rights” is “ongoing and pervasive.”

“It is unlikely that the city will remedy these patterns and practices of unlawful conduct absent judicial mandate and oversight,” the complaint states.

Fiscal pressures

A spokesman for the city did not return emails or calls Wednesday, but much of the discussion at Tuesday night’s City Council forum focused on meeting the government’s terms without digging a bigger fiscal hole for a city already running a $2 million-plus annual deficit.

“This is a way to meet the demands of the [Justice Department], make progress with reform and keep lights on in the city,” Councilman Wesley Bell told reporters Tuesday night after the 6-0 vote to seek changes in the previously negotiated deal.

At a news conference held before the Justice Department’s announcement, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said the city was still hoping to negotiate.

“The ball is in their court,” said Mr. Knowles, according to USA Today. “We’re sitting and waiting to talk. If they want to threaten legal action, then that’s what they’re threatening.”

The Obama administration sought to avoid a civil rights lawsuit over the findings by getting Ferguson leaders to sign off on a consent decree that would address the problematic practices. Under the original agreement, Ferguson law enforcement officials would receive training to recognize unconscious racial stereotyping; police would provide body-worn cameras to all patrol officers, supervisors and jail workers; there would be more stringent accounting of police use-of-force incidents; court fines and jail time for minor violations would be limited; and the diversity of the police force would be increased.

However, City Council members, concerned with the cost of implementing the agreement, opted Tuesday to alter portions of the agreement. One of the most contentious changes, according to Ms. Lynch, was the new condition that the agreement would not apply to any agency that takes over services currently being provided by the city.

Inclusion of that condition would open up the prospect that the Ferguson Police Department could be dissolved and taken over by the surrounding St. Louis County, which would then not be held to the standards of the agreement.

“The citizens deserve constitutional policing no matter who is in charge of their police force,” Ms. Lynch said.

Other conditions the council sought to change included removal of any mandate for an increase in salaries for police officers or other city employees or any stipulations for staffing at the Ferguson jail.

Ms. Lynch said she was disappointed by the City Council’s decision to try to amend the terms of the agreement because it was delaying justice long sought by Ferguson residents.

“The residents of Ferguson have suffered the deprivation of their constitutional rights — the rights guaranteed to all Americans — for decades,” Ms. Lynch said. “They have waited decades for justice. They should not be forced to wait any longer.”

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