Justice Dept. enters Ferguson court case in strong position

The department will look to prove in court the same constitutional violations it's already alleged on paper

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — As Ferguson prepares to do legal battle with the Justice Department, the town's leaders have acknowledged the possibility that it might someday disband its police department and cede law enforcement to another agency.

The question is: Would anyone else want it?

The federal government sued Ferguson on Wednesday, just a day after an agreement to radically reshape the city's police and municipal court practices fell apart.

On Tuesday, the Ferguson City Council approved the settlement, but with seven amendments. In the eyes of the Justice Department, that amounted to rejection.

Among the attempted changes was a statement that the terms of the agreement would not apply if another agency takes over duties currently provided by Ferguson, such as policing.

But Attorney General Loretta Lynch said allowing the city to evade terms of the agreement "by simply transferring control of the police department to another state entity was simply unconscionable" and would have mean "this could have been avoided and evaded by them at any point in time."

Wesley Bell, the Ferguson city councilman who authored the amendments, said Wednesday that giving up control of police duties would be a last resort.

"Our goal is to have our police department do our policing and be the gold standard of policing in the region, if not the country," Bell said. "However, if it came to a point where we did need to contract with another department, we are open to language that guarantees constitutional policing."

He acknowledged that takeover could eventually prove necessary if the city cannot afford the reforms, which is possible. A recent financial analysis estimated the cost of the mandates at up to $3.7 million in the first year alone.

"We don't want language that would discourage other agencies from providing services to assist the city of Ferguson," Bell said.

The federal lawsuit was just the latest fallout from the federal scrutiny that followed the police shooting death of Michael Brown. The unarmed, black 18-year-old was fatally shot by white officer Darren Wilson in August 2014. A Justice Department report last year found that Ferguson police disproportionately targeted black residents with stops and searches and arrested many without legal justification.

Ferguson is among 90 municipalities in sprawling St. Louis County. Many have their own police departments, ranging from a few officers to nearly 100 in the biggest towns, Chesterfield and Florissant.

Fifty-one municipalities contract with St. Louis County for some police services, including 17 that give total policing control to the county, according to county police spokesman Brian Schellman.

In March, a week after the critical Justice Department report, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar wrote to then-Attorney General Eric Holder seeking to take over in Ferguson, according to records released by county police to The Associated Press on Thursday.

"As the events precipitated by the Michael Brown shooting continue, it has become clear that despite their best efforts, the Ferguson Police Department does not have the resources or wherewithal to handle the events in a manner that is beneficial to the region," Belmar wrote on March 12.

But Belmar's request included the caveat that the county would not be subject to conditions of any Justice Department mandate.

The Justice Department turned down the request. Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, said in a letter to Belmar than it would be up to Ferguson's government and residents to decide whether to disband the department.

If the county is ever asked to take over policing in Ferguson, "we would consider the implications of the consent decree before entering into such an agreement," Schellman said Wednesday.

Otherwise, options are few.

Most other departments near Ferguson are too small to take on the additional responsibility. Florissant borders Ferguson to the north and has about twice as many officers as Ferguson. It was not clear if the city would consider contracting. The police chief was out of the office Thursday, and a police spokesman declined comment.

Four tiny municipalities near Ferguson — Vinita Park, Vinita Terrace, Wellston and Charlack — formed into one police department last summer, known as the North County Police Cooperative. The chief is Tim Swope, a former St. Louis County police chief. He did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Remy Cross, a criminology professor at Webster University in suburban St. Louis, said that in the end, cooler heads will prevail and some agreement would be reached if Ferguson police disbanded.

"You don't want basically a lawless area," Cross said. "The county could bring in neighboring towns and say, 'Let's not be children here. Come to the table and figure out how to do this.'"

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press

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