Ferguson residents get a say on police overhaul agreement

The consent decree envisions a reshaping of how officers conduct stops, searches and arrests, use their firearms

By Jim Salter
Associated Press

FERGUSON, Mo. — Ferguson city leaders have spent months negotiating a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, a plan that calls for sweeping changes to police practices in the St. Louis suburb where 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot. Now, residents get their say.

The first of three public meetings on the proposed consent decree Tuesday night will be followed by comment sessions Saturday and Feb. 9, when the city council could approve the agreement.

 In this Nov. 25, 2014 file photo, police officers watch protesters as smoke fills the streets in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Image)
In this Nov. 25, 2014 file photo, police officers watch protesters as smoke fills the streets in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Image)

If approved, the agreement would likely avert a civil rights lawsuit against Ferguson. The consent decree envisions a top-to-bottom reshaping of how police officers conduct stops, searches and arrests, use their firearms and respond to demonstrations. Ferguson officials also agreed to rewrite their municipal code to restrict the use of fines and jail time for petty violations.

The city's cost of implementing the changes will be significant, with preliminary estimates of at least $500,000, Mayor James Knowles III said, though a final analysis was not yet complete.

It would add to the financial difficulties of a municipality that's already facing a $2.8 million deficit due to legal fees, lost sales tax from businesses damaged in protests over the shooting, overtime for officers during the protests and lost revenue from reforms to its municipal court, which the DOJ found made money on the backs of poor and minority residents.

Ferguson already has made across-the-board cuts to pay and benefits for all employees, Knowles said. And voters will consider two tax increases in April — one imposing an economic development sales tax, the other a property tax increase that would cost about $76 annually for a home worth $100,000.

Between the cuts and hoped-for tax increases, Ferguson should be able to pay for the changes required by the agreement with the DOJ and balance its budget, Knowles said. But if voters turn down the tax increases, the city will have no choice but make even deeper cuts, he said.

"Obviously if we agree to this we're going to have to find some way to fund it," Knowles said. "If you don't have the money you have to cut."

Regardless of whether the tax increases are approved, the city is seeking grants to help fund improvements to the police department, including a grant through the Justice Department's COPS program. Knowles said federal officials could not guarantee the city would receive any funding help.

The Justice Department investigated after the killing of Brown, who was black and unarmed, by white Ferguson officer Darren Wilson in 2014. A St. Louis County grand jury and the Justice Department declined to prosecute Wilson, who resigned in November 2014. But the shooting resulted in protests and promoted a wave of national scrutiny about police use of force and law enforcement's interactions with minorities.

In March, the Justice Department issued a report critical of Ferguson's police practices and municipal court system. It found officers routinely used excessive force, issued petty citations and made baseless traffic stops in Ferguson, where about two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black but the vast majority of police officers are white.

Within days of the report, Ferguson's police chief, municipal judge and city manager resigned.

Knowles and other city leaders began negotiating with the Justice Department in July. Recommendations were detailed in a 131-page proposed consent decree released Wednesday.

Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, wrote to Knowles that the agreement will "ensure that police and court services in Ferguson are provided in a manner that fully promotes public safety, respects the fundamental rights of all Ferguson residents, and makes policing in Ferguson safer and more rewarding for officers."

A statement from the city called the proposal "the best agreement that the city's representatives were able to obtain for the citizens of Ferguson."

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press

Associated Press
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