Ferguson Has a Draft Reform Deal. Will It Work?

January 28, 2016
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Police patrol on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015, in Ferguson, Mo. Ferguson was a community on edge again Monday, a day after a protest marking the anniversary of Michael Brown's death was punctuated with gunshots. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

After months of negotiations, the city of Ferguson, Mo., has announced a preliminary five-year agreement with the Justice Department to implement widespread reforms of its policing practices and city government.

The Justice Department intervened in the wake of the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown,an 18-year-old African-American whose death sparked nationwide protests over the mistreatment of blacks by police.

Federal investigators didn’t find constitutional violations by the white officer involved in the shooting. But they did uncover “systemic deficiencies” in the city, including that police used excessive force and targeted African-Americans almost exclusively for unconstitutional stops, searches and seizures.

The agreement includes new training and supervision for police, and an independent monitor to track the department’s progress.

Federal officials have struck similar deals with police departments around the country more than a dozen times before — with mixed results, according to a recent investigation by FRONTLINE and The Washington Post. The investigation found that the agreements led to better training and equipment, but there was little data to demonstrate how or whether those changes reduced officers’ use of force or improved their relationship with the community. 

Ferguson’s agreement, the third reached under Attorney General Loretta Lynch, aims to remedy some of the pitfalls of previous deals.

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Systemic Problems

Ferguson’s agreement is unique in its attempt to root out systemic problems not just in the police department, but in the city’s court and municipal code. The Justice Department found that African-American residents were effectively being targeted by police to generate revenue for the city. Police arrested predominantly black residents on frivolous charges in the city code, and then the court required them to pay fines. The fines mounted when residents failed to appear in court or couldn’t afford to pay what they owed.

To remedy the problem, Ferguson police officers will undergo new training in constitutional stops, searches and seizures, and the use of force, and adopt new policies to ensure officers use lawful means of crowd control during protests, under the agreement.

The code will also be amended to eliminate rules that the Justice Department said were used almost exclusively to penalize African Americans, such as “manner of walking along roadway,” and “use of right half of crosswalks.”

In addition to reforming court policies, the agreement will also impose an amnesty program. The city will decline to prosecute all cases initiated before Jan. 1, 2014, unless the prosecutor finds “good cause” to pursue them, and most pending fines and fees will also be dropped.

Cost

Another concern in many cities is the price tag associated with reform, which can cost millions of dollars and can be a particular burden for small towns like Ferguson. Cities are responsible for paying for new training, equipment and computer systems required by these agreements, as well as the salary of the independent monitoring team to evaluate progress, which can reach six figures annually. It’s not yet clear how much Ferguson’s agreement might cost.

In a letter to city officials, the Justice Department said it was being mindful of the expenses required, adding that it had already provided some free technical assistance and helped find funding to alleviate the financial strain. The agreement specifies that cost will be one of the factors in selecting an independent monitor. Although, officials added, “constitutional protection cannot be denied on the grounds of cost.”

Transparency – and What Works

Ultimately, the question is how effective those reforms will be. The FRONTLINE and Post investigation found that earlier agreements often lacked a consistent means of measuring improvements, such as whether officers were using less force or whether citizens had regained their trust in the police.

Ferguson’s monitor is required to establish outcome measures to track whether reforms are working — a new stipulation that federal officials have only begun to demand in recent years. All of the current agreements with outcome measures, such as Cleveland, Seattle or Albuquerque, N.M., are still in progress.

In previous deals, community members have sometimes struggled to understand what progress was being made, if any. In Ferguson, the city has publicly released the unsigned agreement, and plans to hold three meetings in the coming weeks to hear public comments.

The city council will vote on Feb. 9 on whether to accept the agreement.

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