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Mar 8, 2016 9:08 PM

Ferguson takes step to resolve lawsuit with DOJ

The Associated Press

FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) One year after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report highly critical of police and court practices in Ferguson, the city where the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown led to unrest and helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement may be nearing an agreement to end a lawsuit filed by the federal agency. The City Council in the St. Louis suburb on Tuesday approved the first reading of a measure to accept an agreement with the Justice Department, and the panel could finalize the decision next week.

Here are some things to know about Ferguson, reforms proposed for it and legal action taken against the city.

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WHY IS THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT SO FOCUSED ON FERGUSON?

Brown, a black, unarmed 18-year-old, was shot to death Aug. 9, 2014, by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson during a confrontation in a street. A St. Louis County grand jury and the Justice Department both cleared Wilson of wrongdoing and no charges were filed. They concluded that evidence backed his claim that he shot Brown in self-defense after Brown first tried to grab the officer's gun during a struggle through the window of Wilson's police vehicle, then came toward him threateningly after briefly running away.

Wilson resigned in November of 2014.

The shooting sparked months of unrest in Ferguson and throughout the St. Louis region. As part of the fallout, serious concerns were voiced about the way Ferguson police and courts dealt with black residents. Many blacks said they were singled out for unnecessary traffic stops, arrested without provocation and even brutalized in some cases. Their concerns led the Justice Department to open an investigation.

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WHAT DID THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT FIND?

A Justice Department report issued in March 2015 found that the criminal justice system in Ferguson routinely violated the constitutional rights of blacks. Police were accused of harassing blacks, and the report found that the city made millions of dollars off municipal court fines and fees, with most of that coming from black and poor residents. Within days of the report's release, Ferguson's police chief, city manager and municipal judge resigned.

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HAVE THERE BEEN ANY CHANGES SINCE THE REPORT?

After the report, city leaders initiated several changes. Officers now interact more with the community in a proactive way, rather than waiting for crimes to occur, Mayor James Knowles III said. Court reforms have capped the amount of money the city can collect from fines and fees. Meanwhile, the city and the Justice Department began talks last summer aimed at avoiding a civil rights lawsuit.

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WHAT HAPPENED AFTER NEGOTIATIONS WITH THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT?

After six months of talks, the two sides announced in January they had reached an agreement to improve police and court practices, while avoiding a lawsuit. Knowles and the City Council hosted three public meetings to hear from residents, and many expressed worries that the agreement could bankrupt Ferguson. A city cost analysis also raised that concern, determining the deal could cost up to $3.7 million in the first year alone. The council voted in February to reject the original deal by inserting seven amendments, aimed mostly at containing the cost. The Justice Department filed suit the next day.

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WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE THE COUNCIL LAST VOTED ON THE DEAL?

A letter from Justice Department Civil Rights Division head Vanita Gupta to Knowles and the council on Friday assured that if the council reconsidered and adopted the agreement, the lawsuit would be dropped. The letter also provided clarity about the cost of the reforms, saying the Justice Department was willing to work with Ferguson on the financial issue. Based on those assurances, the council on Tuesday gave a first reading to a measure that would adopt the agreement.

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WHAT COMES NEXT?

The measure requires a second and final reading for passage of the Justice Department agreement. That could happen at the regularly scheduled council meeting on March 15. If the council adopts the agreement, reforms will begin almost immediately. The agreement calls for the hiring of a monitor to ensure that Ferguson follows the requirements. New diversity training will be instituted for police, software will be purchased and staff hired to analyze records on arrests, use of force and other police matters.

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