Most clear-thinking people know better than to fight a Department of Justice order, especially when their representatives helped negotiate the terms of the order. Not the befuddled leaders of Ferguson, Mo.
The Ferguson City Council voted 6-0 last week to reject the deal worked out with the feds to overhaul the police and courts. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, predictably, said the government will sue to force compliance. City residents deserve the reforms, she said at a news conference announcing the lawsuits. “They have waited decades for justice. They should not be forced to wait any longer.”
The consent order stemmed from a Justice investigation into policing practices in Ferguson sparked by the 2014 police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. That added fuel to the nationwide movement declaring “Black Lives Matter” following a number of killings of African-Americans by police.
A scathing Justice Department report found unconscionable actions by law enforcement. It concluded last year that Ferguson’s criminal justice system “was broken at every level.” Police used excessive force almost exclusively against African-Americans. Moreover, officers did not know the basic standard for making an arrest. Ferguson’s citizens became all too familiar with an astonishing level of harassment. Justice Department investigators concluded that the city’s Police Department and courts did not operate as independent bodies but as a moneymaking venture to pad Ferguson’s budget, on the backs of overwhelmingly poor African-Americans.
Lynch has made the right decision. It may seem punishing to some folks in Ferguson who insist that they do not have the money for reforms. What they don’t understand is that they cannot afford to do less. The city’s African-American residents have been paying a much higher price for a much longer period.
Under President Obama, the Justice Department has opened more investigations into police abuse than it has under any previous administration, according to a New York Times story published in The Buffalo News. No case has been more closely watched than Ferguson, and the council fumbled.
With conclusions like those in the Justice report, one would think the city’s elected leaders would rush to comply, regardless of the cost. Following months of negotiations with the Obama administration, city officials agreed last month on a deal. It would have avoided a lawsuit and it would have been the right thing to do.
The agreement included something seemingly simple: police officers would not make arrests without probable cause, shoot at moving cars or use stun guns as punishment. The agreement also demanded that the municipal court be independent of the Police Department. It also called for the repeal of some laws, such as a vague jaywalking ordinance that was used almost exclusively against black residents.
The deal would have required Ferguson to pay for an independent monitor, provide new training and give raises to police officers in an effort to attract qualified candidates. But for a city that has been running an operating deficit of about $2.5 million since the unrest nearly two years ago, the expense seemed too much for council members and some residents. It might require a tax increase. It might prompt similar raises for other municipal employees.
Now, by rejecting the deal, the city is going to incur the expense of fighting a federal lawsuit, followed by the likelihood of paying for the negotiated reforms.