FERGUSON, Mo. — The Justice Department said on Wednesday that it is exploring “legal actions” against the city of Ferguson, just hours after the city council in the St. Louis suburb called for the revision of several aspects of a tentative agreement to revamp its police department and municipal court operations.
Ferguson’s city council voted late Tuesday to conditionally approve most of the tentative settlement reached with the Justice Department last month in the wake of the 2014 shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer.
But the council officials said they want several revisions to the tentative consent decree agreement reached by the Justice Department and Ferguson’s lawyers after months of negotiations.
The move was rebuked by the Justice Department, which could choose to file a civil rights suit against the city to enforce the consent decree. Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department civil rights division, said in statement that the department would now take “necessary legal actions to ensure that Ferguson’s policing and court practices comply with the Constitution and relevant federal laws.”
“The Ferguson City Council has attempted to unilaterally amend the negotiated agreement,” Gupta said. “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.”
Ferguson has became a focal point in the national debate over police relations in the African-American community after the the death of Brown.
The move by Ferguson comes after Mayor James Knowles and some council members raised concerns about the costs of implementing the decree, which city officials estimated could potentially cost the city nearly $10 million over the next three years.
“In order to make sure this is a successful decree, we got to make sure that this something we can implement, something we can afford,” Knowles said.
Ferguson’s city council says its ready to accept the consent decree if the Justice Department makes several changes. Among them are that the agreement would have no mandate that could lead to an increase in police officer salaries, and no provisions on staffing levels at the city jail. The council also wants Justice to agree that the cost of federal monitoring fees the city has to pay be capped at $1 million over five years.
After the council voted in favor of approving the agreement conditionally on Tuesday, many residents at the council meeting greeted the move with jeers, and predicted that Justice would scoff at reopening negotiations.
“This is not going away. We have to pay,” said Patricia Cowan, 54, told council members. “We need to think about where we’re at, and we need to move forward.”
Proponents of the agreement said the reforms were necessary to ensure fairness to the city’s African-American residents, which make up about 70% of the city’s population. They said the reforms are also necessary to heal long festering wounds in the community. The Justice Department concluded in a report last year that racial bias was an endemic problem in the city’s police department and municipal court.
But other residents said agreeing to the decree will cripple the city of about 21,000 that has a budget of about $14 million and is roughly $2.8 million in debt. Much of the deficit came from police overtime and lost tax revenue from businesses damaged during unrest following the shooting death of Brown, 18.
“My fear is that with your vote that Ferguson will cease to exist,” said Susan Ankenbrand, 73, who has lived in the city for 41 years. “I would rather lose our city by fighting in court than losing it to DOJ’s crushing demands.”
Under the agreement, Ferguson will pay the cost of a Justice Department monitor for at least three years, purchase software and hire staff to maintain data on arrests, traffic stops and use of force incidents.
The agreement calls for a revision in the police department’s training with an emphasis “toward de-escalation and avoiding force — particularly deadly force — except where necessary,” according to the Justice Department.
Ferguson would also be required to recruit a more diverse force. Currently, only a handful of officers on the more than 50-officer force are African-American, in a city that is nearly 70% black.
Knowles was particularly concerned about a provision in the agreement, aimed at boosting Ferguson’s ability to compete for top law enforcement candidates, that would force the city to dramatically increase officer benefits by as much $14,600 per year in salary, pension and payroll costs, according to a city estimate. Knowles says that the city’s contract with Ferguson firefighters requires parity in pay with the city’s police officers.
Residents will vote on ballot initiatives in April that would raise property and sales taxes in Ferguson, but even if they are passed, layoffs and deep budget cuts may be necessary, city officials warn.
The NAACP dismissed cost concerns raised by Knowles as a tactic that has been used “since time immemorial” — including during desegregation battles in the South — by state and local officials trying to elude civil rights mandates.
“We reject this argument out of hand as an affront to democracy,” said Sherilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “All public institutions, including police departments, must operate in accordance with the U.S. Constitution.”
Bob Hudgins, a local activist who supported signing of the decree, said the resistance by Knowles amounted to “white supremacy’s last stand in Ferguson.”
But Hudgins, who like Knowles is white, said that Ferguson residents shouldn’t bear the entire costs of implementing the consent decree.
“There’s got to be block grants out there, money from the feds that can help Ferguson,” said Hudgins, who is running for a spot on the Ferguson city council in the April elections.
Follow USA TODAY reporters Aamer Madhani and Kevin Johnson on Twitter:AamerISmad and @bykevinj
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