WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is close to an agreement with the Ferguson, Missouri, police department on a deal that would bring sweeping changes to the agency, a person familiar with the matter said Wednesday.
The overhaul, once finalized, could avert a civil rights lawsuit that federal officials have the option to bring against departments that resist changing their policing practices.
The person, who was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke only on condition of anonymity, said the agreement still requires final approval by the city but involves changes including more thorough training of police officers. Such deals also generally require the appointment of a monitor to oversee a police department’s compliance.
Ferguson city officials cautioned that no deal was imminent, and said that while significant progress had been made they remained concerned about the cost of a deal they fear could “bankrupt” an already financially troubled community.
“We want to get it past us, but at the same time we’re not going to agree to anything we don’t think is appropriate or we can’t afford,” said Mayor James Knowles III.
Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson declined to discuss those concerns or the timing of any resolution, but said in a statement that negotiations to create a court-enforceable consent had been “productive.” Another person familiar with the process, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the two sides had made a “lot of progress” since the release of a harshly critical federal report earlier this year.
“The department believes that in order to remedy the Justice Department’s findings an agreement needs to be reached without delay,” Iverson said in a statement.
The federal government launched an investigation into Ferguson’s policing protocols last year after the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer put the department under national scrutiny.
Though the officer, Darren Wilson, did not face state or federal charges, the federal investigation into the police department found sweeping patterns of racial bias within the force.
A Justice Department report issued in March, based on interviews with police leaders and residents and analysis of data on stops, searches and arrests found that officers routinely used excessive force, issued petty citations and made baseless traffic stops.
Then-Attorney General Eric Holder called the report a “searing” portrait of the department and said, “It is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg.”
The Justice Department has undertaken more than 20 investigations of troubled police departments, most recently Chicago and Baltimore, in the last six years in search of systemic civil rights abuses. Many of those investigations end with a consent decree in which the police force commits to an overhaul of its practices. The Justice Department has the ability to sue when talks break down.
Knowles and Councilman Brian Fletcher said the council recently notified the Justice Department that the city would not agree to a settlement until residents have input into the process. Fletcher said he was not aware of any response.
Fletcher said he was concerned the agreement could “bankrupt the city.” He said the annual cost of a monitor, additional police training and other costs associated with the agreement could amount to $500,000 to $750,000.
Ferguson is already struggling financially due to several factors related to the fallout from Brown’s death, including overtime costs for officers during months of unrest, loss of revenue from self-imposed municipal court reforms, legal costs from protester lawsuits and the DOJ negotiations, declining property values and other factors.
“We are over $2 million deficit spending before the implementation of the agreement,” Fletcher said. “The only way possible (to afford the settlement) would be through extensive cuts in personnel and expenses or a tax increase, or a combination of both.”
Knowles has cited significant changes over the past 16 months, including a community policing effort that seeks to work with residents rather than simply respond to crimes, and several reforms in the municipal court system.
Salter reported from St. Louis.