ST. LOUIS -- A federal judge on Tuesday approved a deal between the city of Ferguson and the Justice Department that aims to end the patterns of unconstitutional policing and municipal court practices that helped spark unrest in the St. Louis suburb following the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in August 2014.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry signed off on the consent decree after hearing from supporters and opponents of the deal for several hours at the federal courthouse. While the vast majority of speakers either supported the deal or wanted aspects of the consent decree strengthened, a number of Ferguson residents indicated they still didn’t recognize the legitimacy of the complaints of residents in the majority-black city that were recognized in the DOJ report. One white Ferguson resident claimed the federal government had “empowered the criminal element” in the city.
Christy Lopez of the Justice Department said the department's year-and-a-half-long investigation of the Ferguson Police Department and municipal court system found the narrative that law-abiding citizens didn’t have to worry about the police to be “false,” and spoke about the patterns of unconstitutional conduct that federal investigators had identified.
The report, based in part on emails and documents provided by the city, found that Ferguson officials had worked together to increase the city’s revenues through increased fines and fees that had no connection to public safety. Federal investigators also uncovered racist emails sent and received by high-ranking officials in Ferguson and regular violations of the civil rights of the city’s residents, particularly those living in the African-American parts of the city.
“We want Ferguson to be known for how it responded to this crisis,” said Lopez, saying the Justice Department was interested in helping “bring about systemic change” in the city.
The consent decree was first announced in January and was the product of several months of negotiations between the city and federal authorities, who over a year ago delivered their report on widespread policing abuses.
Many speakers pointed out that the problems identified in the Ferguson report were not unique to the city and were present in many municipalities in St. Louis County that heavily rely upon fines and fees to keep their governments afloat. Lopez said the DOJ can’t “blanket all of St. Louis County,” but said it was better to address the problem than say nothing at all.
Vanita Gupta, the head of the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement that the Justice Department “is looking forward to working with the city of Ferguson as it implements the decree and continues the essential work to create a police department that the Constitution requires and that residents deserve.”
While some residents complained that the process wasn’t transparent, Lopez said the Justice Department would be able to proactively provide more information moving forward. Judge Perry said it was helpful to hear from the public and that the agreement would be an effective path forward.
“Give this a chance to work, and I hope it will work,” Perry said. “It’s a good first step.”
Mariah Stewart reported from St. Louis. Ryan J. Reilly reported from Washington, D.C.