- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2016

Ferguson City Council members could vote as soon as Tuesday for a second time on a plan to overhaul the city’s police and court systems, a move that could defuse a Justice Department lawsuit against the city.

In February, Ferguson officials rejected a negotiated consent decree over concerns that compliance could bankrupt the embattled Missouri city. Instead, they sent the agreement back to the Justice Department with seven conditions.

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the city the next day that starkly accused the police force of a pattern of racial profiling and unnecessary force and the municipal courts of acting as a profit-driven system that relies on fines for petty violations.

City spokesman Jeff Small said Monday that the council is likely to bring up the consent decree for another vote Tuesday.

This time, Ferguson officials say they have received assurances from the Justice Department that it will work with the city as the plan is implemented to address cost concerns, making approval more likely.

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

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.

Mayor James Knowles III told The Associated Press on Monday that the Justice Department has assured the city that the plan will not create an unmanageable financial burden.

“We feel like we’re going to be in that cost range that we can afford,” Mr. Knowles said. “We now have in writing from the DOJ that they will take very seriously these cost issues with us.”

In a letter sent Friday to the mayor, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta held firm on the Justice Department’s commitment to take the city to court if it did not sign the consent decree as initially negotiated, but she also acknowledged that it was not uncommon for such agreements to raise staffing and financial challenges.

“Provided those challenges are genuine, approached in good faith, and not pretexts for noncompliance, we are committed to working with jurisdictions to overcome these challenges,” Ms. Gupta wrote.

Leaders of Ferguson, which has an operating budget of $14.5 million and a budget deficit of $2.8 million this fiscal year, previously put the costs associated with the Justice Department’s consent decree as high as $3.7 million in the first year.

Under the initial Justice Department agreement, which was publicly released in late January, the city would overhaul the policies and practices of the Ferguson Police Department and the municipal court system. Changes would include training to help Ferguson law enforcement officials recognize unconscious racial stereotyping; deployment of body-worn cameras to all patrol officers, supervisors and jail workers; more stringent accounting of police use-of-force incidents; limitations of court fines and jail time for minor violations; and a plan to increase the diversity of the police force.

City leaders suggested that a large portion of the cost to implement the reforms was a requirement that the city increase salaries of officers to make the Ferguson Police Department among the most competitive of similar-size agencies in St. Louis County. City officials surmised that they would have to boost salaries for other city agencies as well.

The Justice Department letter sent Friday put into writing acknowledgments that the salary conditions did not require any specific salary figure, nor did they need to be implemented all at once.

The salary increases were negotiated to “address concerns about low officer retention rates and the need to attract and retain a highly qualified workforce following the city’s investment in training its officers,” Ms. Gupta wrote.

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