The Justice Department Sues Ferguson to Enforce Reforms

“There is no price when it comes to constitutional policing,” says Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Image Carolyn Kaster/AP
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announces a federal lawsuit against Ferguson, Missouri. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

This time last year, the U.S. Department of Justice handed down a damning report on the state of law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri. The reforms called for by the federal investigation into the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, and the subsequent discovery of excessive policing and an unfair system of court fees and traffic fines, amounted to a top-to-bottom recommended rewrite of how the city polices its residents and funds its operations.

City and federal officials then spent 26 weeks negotiating what reform for Ferguson would look like. But instead of taking up the negotiated settlement, Ferguson balked. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the Ferguson City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to reject a court-enforceable consent decree with the Obama administration. Today, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Justice Department will file a federal suit against Ferguson.

The road to reform was always going to be a long haul for the city. Twelve of the 13 recommendations for Ferguson authorities involved fairly drastic revisions to the city’s practice of justice, including reforms of trial procedures to ensure due process and a broad-based reduction of fines and fees. The 13th recommendation went beyond the purview of local leaders: Cooperate with the more than 90 municipalities that make up St. Louis County to bring meaningful reform to the metro area.

The resulting consent decree would cost Ferguson between $2.1 million and $3.7 million to implement in its first year, according to the Justice Department. In rejecting the agreement, the Ferguson City Council argued that it would cost even more—and that the city would face bankruptcy as a result.

At root in the city’s 6-0 vote rejecting the consent decree were objections to two primary provisions. One would mandate that police salaries be among the top 25 percent for similarly sized cities around the country, meaning huge raises for the city’s more than 50 officers. City leaders argued these raises would trigger unsustainable pay hikes for other government employees.

The other, perhaps more relevant provision, would require Ferguson to abide by the agreement even if the city dissolved the Ferguson Police Department. Ferguson City Council member Wesley Bell told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the city would not be able to field another law-enforcement agency if the consent decree were entailed, given the steep reforms and strict oversight of the agreement.

“If we get to the point where we have to disband our police department, which honestly I don’t see happening, but let’s say it does happen, no department is going to take us on with those conditions without charging twice as much,” Council member Bell said.

Attorney General Lynch addressed the Ferguson City Council’s complaint during a press conference Wednesday. “Our view is the city of Ferguson deserves constitutional policing, no matter who is in charge of the city’s police force,” she said. By striking this provision, Ferguson would be able to “avoid and evade” any efforts at reform of its policing.

The Justice Department’s lawsuit contends that the city’s law enforcement violates residents’ First, Fourth, and 14th Amendment rights, in addition to various federal Civil Rights laws.

According to The New York Times, residents in Ferguson approved the consent decree in public comments, even if it meant tax increases in order to pay for the high costs. But the scope of reform may in fact be impossible for Ferguson to implement—as they appeared to be from the very beginning—without going bankrupt. While the city’s residents favor compliance with the Justice Department’s demands, and may even be willing to stomach a tax increase to do what the city needs to do, Ferguson remains a small city of 21,000 residents working (at a deficit) on a $14.5 million annual budget. Building an efficient, fair, and non-biased justice system could reasonably lead to the city’s dissolution.

During her press conference, Attorney General Loretta Lynch seemed to allow for that possibility. “As always, we are always cost sensitive when we deal with municipalities,” she said. “However, there is no price when it comes to constitutional policing.”

It’s unclear why the Ferguson City Council decided that a federal lawsuit is preferable to compliance, or how it moves the city closer toward long-term viability. Perhaps the city was hoping to push the Justice Department to accede to accommodations beyond those reached by negotiators. If so, that strategy failed.

The answer may well be that Ferguson is not viable in the long term, no matter what decisions its leaders make. Bankruptcy is not a certain outcome, but it’s a plausible one. The scope of the problems facing the cities that make up St. Louis County—from Ferguson to Florissant to Bel-Ridge and dozens of other communities that all face the same dismal long-term outlook—are beyond the means of any one of them to solve on its own.

Which is why municipal consolidation still looks like the only real answer for Ferguson (and Florissant, and Bel-Ridge, and so on). But neither the Justice Department nor the Ferguson City Council can bring that solution. For now, the future of Ferguson is headed, unhappily, to the courts.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.