Feb 10, 2016 12:11 AM
Ferguson City Council seeks changes to DOJ reform agreement
The Associated Press
FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) The Ferguson City Council agreed Tuesday to most proposals in a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department that would reform the city's courts and policing systems but also asked for several changes, including some limiting the city's cost.
The changes announced before a crowd of about 300 at the Ferguson Community Center angered many who supported the original consent decree. Several protesters began chanting, "No justice, no peace," and other refrains common during protests in the St. Louis suburb after 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in 2014.
The settlement was meant to correct problems identified in a Justice Department report last year, including unconstitutional and discriminatory practices across the police force and municipal court system. The deal had been reached following seven months of negotiations, but a city analysis over the past few days determined the city's cost would be up to $3.7 million for the first year alone. That prompted concern from some residents and city officials that it would bankrupt Ferguson.
Councilman Wesley Bell, who proposed the changes, said he was confident the Justice Department would agree.
"I don't think there's anything unreasonable," Bell said.
If the Justice Department doesn't go along with the changes, a civil rights lawsuit is possible, potentially costing Ferguson millions of dollars in legal fees. Messages left late Tuesday seeking comment from the department were not immediately returned.
The biggest change removes a requirement that police salaries be raised. City officials believe meeting that provision would also require fire department salaries to rise, potentially costing $1 million annually.
Another provision states parts of the agreement won't apply to any other governmental entity that could potentially take over duties currently provided by Ferguson. That means, for example, that St. Louis County would not be beholden to the agreement if it eventually takes over policing in Ferguson.
The amended agreement was announced and approved in a unanimous vote at the end of an often-boisterous meeting that had been moved to the Ferguson Community Center because of the crowd size. The vast majority of speakers supported the original agreement.
Karl Tricamo, 32, shouted out as the council approved the amended deal, wondering why it wasn't announced until the end of the meeting.
"I don't think the DOJ is going to go for this," he said.
Ferguson has been under scrutiny since the fatal police shooting of Brown, whose father stood quietly at the back of the meeting Tuesday night. The black, unarmed 18-year-old was fatally shot Aug. 9, 2014, by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson during a confrontation on a street. A St. Louis County grand jury declined to charge Wilson, who later resigned. He was cleared of wrongdoing by the Justice Department.
The shooting was a catalyst in the Black Lives Matter movement and helped prompt a national dialogue about police use of force.
The agreement requires hiring a monitor, instituting police diversity training, and buying software and hiring staff to analyze records on arrests, use of force and other police matters.
The city previously estimated it will cost $2.2 million to $3.7 million to implement the agreement in the first year, and $1.8 million to $3 million in each of the second and third years.
To help reduce the deficit and pay for the changes required in the consent decree, the city is asking voters in April to approve property and sales tax increases. It is also seeking federal grants. Even if both tax hikes are approved, Mayor James Knowles III said, non-police job cuts may be necessary.
Some who spoke at the meeting said the cost of the original agreement was simply too high for a city with a $14.5 million budget and already facing a $2.8 million deficit that largely stems from such costs as overtime for police during protests, lost sales tax revenue from businesses damaged in fires and looting, and legal expenses.
"I would rather lose our city by fighting for it in court than lose it by giving into the DOJ's crushing demands," said Susan Ankenbrand, a 41-year resident of Ferguson.
But others said the agreement is important, regardless the cost.
Kayla Green, who is black, said injustices were tolerated for too long in Ferguson. "Cost should never be the reason not to do what's right," she said. "It is time to prioritize justice no matter how much it costs because justice is priceless."