Officers stand guard over the Ferguson Police Department in September 2014
The U.S. Department of Justice is fed up with Ferguson — and it's slapping the troubled city with a federal lawsuit that alleges local cops and courts abused residents’ rights.
U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch told reporters on Wednesday that local officials dragged their feet on long-overdue reforms for a year.
“But residents of Ferguson have suffered the deprivation of their constitutional rights – the rights guaranteed to all Americans – for decades,” Lynch said in a news release. “They have waited decades for justice. They should not be forced to wait any longer.”
The lawsuit was filed less than 24 hours after Ferguson City Council members made a last-minute bid to alter an agreement with the feds. The Justice Department had spent months negotiating the details of a 131-page consent decree with the city — the result of a wide-ranging review of municipal operations following the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014. The agreement called for a major overhaul of the police and municipal court system, including the installation of a federal monitor to oversee the cops.
On Tuesday, council members voted unanimously to approve the agreement but only after they penned seven changes. The city’s amendments included a five-year, $1 million cap on monitoring fees. Another would have allowed any outside government agency that took over Ferguson’s responsibilities to ignore the decree — a move that would essentially gut the agreement if the city decided to farm out its policing to another department.
Ferguson council members claimed they had little choice, because they believed the cost of the reforms would bankrupt the city.
“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,” Councilman Wesley Bell told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
. “It’s not a ‘no’ on the provision. It’s, ‘Let’s talk about the provision. Let’s figure out something we can all live with that actually makes sense.’”
After months of negotiations, the Justice Department wasn’t eager to do more talking. The 56-page lawsuit
claims cops routinely roughed up residents and searched them and their vehicles without justification. If people protested or didn’t do exactly as told, officers filed charges in retaliation, according to the federal complaint.
Police were particularly rough on black people, who were more than twice as likely to be searched, cited or arrested than others, feds claim. The lawsuit is littered with anecdotes of alleged abuse and strong-arm tactics, primarily directed at black residents:
In 2011, four cops cornered an unarmed 14-year-old who was playing hooky from school and turned a canine loose on him when he refused to come out of a closet.
The same year, a mentally ill man died when an officer shocked him over and over with a stun gun.
In 2014, an officer arrested a black father for allowing his young children to pee behind a shrub in a park. When the man’s wife filmed the officer with her cell phone, he arrested her too.
“No more mercy, since she wanted to videotape,” the officer said, according to the suit. “Nobody videotapes me.”
The city’s black residents didn’t fare any better in court, where officials leaned on them to instill “personal responsibility” and traded racist emails behind their backs.
Federal authorities say they’ve tried to work with the city, but Tuesday’s council vote on the decree left them little choice.
“Our investigation found that Ferguson’s policing and municipal court practices violate the Constitution, erode trust and undermine public safety,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “As shown by our lawsuit today, the Justice Department will continue to vigorously enforce the law to ensure that Ferguson implements long-overdue reforms necessary to create constitutional, effective and accountable policing. Ferguson residents and police officers deserve a law enforcement system that productively and fairly serves the entire community.”
We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.