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DOJ raps Ferguson City Council for ‘unnecessary delay’ on police reforms

Updated on March 15 | The Ferguson City Council reversed itself on Tuesday, voting 6-0 to approve an agreement with the Justice Department on how to improve its police and court system. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division issued a statement saying:

“Tonight, the city of Ferguson, Missouri, took an important step towards guaranteeing all of its citizens the protections of our Constitution.  We are pleased that they have approved the consent decree, a document designed to provide the framework needed to institute constitutional policing in Ferguson, and look forward to filing it in court in the coming days and beginning to work with them towards implementation.”

Original story posted on Feb. 10:

The Ferguson, Missouri, City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a number of changes to a raft of reforms meant to improve its courts and police, drawing a swift rebuke from the Justice Department.

The consent decree, which the city had spent seven months negotiating with the Department of Justice, was intended to address constitutional and discriminatory practices uncovered by a DOJ investigation following the August 2014 fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb.

But instead of approving the agreement as is, the council voted 6-0 to send it back to DOJ with seven changes.

DOJ quickly responded to the council’s action. In a statement issued early Wednesday morning, Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said the council “attempted to unilaterally amend the negotiated agreement. Their vote to do so creates an unnecessary delay in the essential work to bring constitutional policing to the city.

“The Department of Justice will take the necessary legal actions to ensure that Ferguson’s policing and court practices comply with the Constitution and relevant federal laws,” he said without specifying whether a lawsuit would be filed.

The changes to the consent decree included removing a requirement to raise police salaries. The amendments also struck the requirement that all provisions apply to any agency that takes over Ferguson’s police force, which means the city would be able to sidestep the reforms if the police force were disbanded.

The council said the changes were needed to prevent the city from going bankrupt. The city of 21,000, with a $14.5 million budget, has a deficit of $2.8 million this year. A city analysis showed the reforms would cost the city up to $3.7 million in the first year, and $1.8 million to $3 million in the second and third year, according to the Associated Press.

The consent decree would require hiring a federal monitor, implementing police diversity training, and reviewing all records on arrests and police use of force.

ONE Ferguson, a civic organization formed after the shooting and ensuing protests, said implementing the decree “allows for trust to be restored within our community.”

Not agreeing to the decree means the city would likely go to trial against the DOJ, “facing huge court costs. The DOJ would likely win this trial, and Ferguson would have to implement most of the items in the decree anyway,” the group said.

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