ST. LOUIS -- A sweeping proposed agreement between the Justice Department and Ferguson, Missouri, would bring big changes to way the city’s police department and municipal court have operated, in an attempt to end the unconstitutional practices that had severely damaged the relationship between officers and members of the community.
If adopted, the agreement would mandate extensive officer training; make several revisions to the municipal code to eliminate statutes that police used to abuse the city’s most vulnerable residents; force the city to actually holding its officers accountable for their actions; attempt to eliminate the profit-driven municipal court practices that plagued Ferguson’s government; make the city engage with groups that have not had positive relationships with the police department; push police to focus on de-escalation tactics when using force; and protect the First Amendment rights of citizens.
The proposed agreement is the result of an extensive investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division into the practices of Ferguson’s municipal government following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014. The shooting and the subsequent oppressive police response to public protests drew national attention to police practices in the St. Louis area, and DOJ’s report exposed racist emails that had circulated within the department, as well as policing practices that were driven by profit rather than public safety.
Ferguson made the proposed agreement available on Wednesday and said it would seek public comments before the Ferguson City Council votes on the agreement next month. The court-enforceable agreement would be enacted by an independent monitor who would help ensure the city was living up to the agreement over the course of at least five years.
Given Ferguson’s relatively small size, city officials have expressed concern about the cost of the monitor. While Ferguson will be responsible for the cost of the monitor, the agreement states that fees and costs “will be an important factor to be considered” when selecting the monitor.
A letter from Vanita Gupta, the chief of the Civil Rights Division, indicated that the Justice Department had “made significant efforts” to provide free technical assistance to Ferguson and to find resources that could help the city to meet the requirements of the agreement.
“As has long been established under law, constitutional protection cannot be denied on the grounds of cost,” Gupta wrote. She said they worked to make sure police and court reform could happen “in a timely, meaningful, and cost-effective way.”
Enforcement of the agreement, Gupta wrote, “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.”
To that end, the agreement could provide a salary boost for officers in Ferguson, as the city would agree to work to make the Ferguson Police Department “among the most competitive” of agencies of similar sizes in St. Louis County. The agreement also emphasizes support for officers and their families.
The agreement also requires integrity from Ferguson police officers and sets up an actual disciplinary process, which never really existed. It would make failing to report misconduct an action that can result in discipline. Officers who lie would be fired.
If implemented, the agreement would forbid Ferguson from holding anyone arrested on a municipal warrant for more than 12 hours, and any detention beyond 12 hours would require the authorization of the chief of police. Under the proposed agreement, Ferguson would be forced to repeal municipal codes that had been abused by police officers, such as “Manner of Walking Along Roadway” and “Crossing at Right Angles.”
The agreement would force the municipal court to operate independently from Ferguson’s prosecutor (currently Stephanie Karr) in a way that “eliminates existing and potential unlawful conflicts of interest.” Ferguson’s municipal judge would also have to act like an actual judge.
While Ferguson “does not agree with every finding or opinion referenced in the report,” city officials negotiated with DOJ in an effort to move forward, according to the draft of the agreement. Gupta praised the work of the Ferguson negotiating team -- which included Ferguson Mayor James Knowles -- for its “thoughtful, creative, and resolute” advocacy. Knowles had previously maintained that the Justice Department report put too much of an emphasis on race.
Gupta said the agreement could serve as a model for cities like Ferguson.
“In many respects, this Agreement simply encapsulates the elements that any small- to medium size police department can and should put in place to ensure that its officers conduct themselves in a manner that is constitutional and effective, and that builds trust and genuine partnerships in diverse communities,” Gupta wrote.
Ryan J. Reilly reported from Washington. Mariah Stewart reported from St. Louis.
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