Ferguson City Council votes to accept DOJ reform deal

SHARE Ferguson City Council votes to accept DOJ reform deal

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III (left) shakes hands with Michael Brown Sr. after a meeting of the city council on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Ferguson, Missouri. | Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP

FERGUSON, Mo. — The Ferguson City Council has unanimously agreed to accept a U.S. Justice Department plan to overhaul its embattled police force and municipal court system after a brief attempt to revise the deal led to a federal lawsuit.

Elected leaders in the St. Louis suburb where the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown Jr. helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement voted Tuesday night to approve the DOJ consent decree.

Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., who attended the meeting but didn’t speak publicly, shook hands with Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III and several council members after the vote.

The agency and Ferguson reached a tentative agreement in late January after months of negotiations, but the council rejected the plan in February over cost concerns, prompting the Justice Department to sue the next day.

The lawsuit remains pending as a federal judge must still approve the preliminary agreement.

Vanita Gupta, head of the department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement that Ferguson “took an important step towards guaranteeing all of its citizens the protections of our Constitution.”

Assurances from Gupta that the city won’t be required to provide its police officers with pay raises — a provision they feared could bankrupt Ferguson — led to the consent decree’s tentative approval at a meeting one week ago.

Alicia Street holds a sign as she sits in the audience during a meeting of the Ferguson City Council on Tuesday. | Jeff Roberson/AP

Alicia Street holds a sign as she sits in the audience during a meeting of the Ferguson City Council on Tuesday. | Jeff Roberson/AP

A city analysis had indicated implementation costs could approach $4 million in the first year alone. That led the Ferguson council to propose amending the agreement in February with seven provisions aimed mostly at keeping costs in check.

City Manager De’Carlon Seewood said Tuesday that the new measures will cost Ferguson “a little over $1 million” in the first year, about $700,000 in the second year and $600,000 in year three.

Those estimates don’t include technical assistance and grant money Ferguson could receive for its efforts, he added.

By contrast, the costs of fighting the federal government in court could have been substantially higher.

“Thank you,” retired teacher Gerry Jasper told the council. “I’m glad our city isn’t going to go down the tubes.”

The 131-page consent decree is intended to correct problems identified in a scathing Justice Department report last year that found sweeping patterns of racial bias throughout the city’s criminal justice system.

The agreement calls for the hiring of a monitor to ensure 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. And within 180 days, all patrol officers, supervisors and jail workers will be outfitted with body cameras.

The city had been under federal scrutiny since the August 2014 shooting of Brown, who was black and unarmed, by white police officer Darren Wilson, who was cleared of wrongdoing by the Justice Department in the shooting and whom a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict.

Wesley Bell, one of three new council members either elected or appointed to office since Brown’s death, suggested that the sweeping DOJ agreement could transform Ferguson into an exemplar of police reform.

“The world is watching us,” Bell said. “We’ve got an opportunity to show what change looks like. . . . Shame on us if we can’t meet this challenge.”

BY ALAN SCHER ZAGIER, Associated Press

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