There never was much doubt the federal government would sue the city of Ferguson, Mo., if it couldn’t reach an agreement with the St. Louis suburb to reform its criminal justice system. The city came under intense scrutiny by the Justice Department in 2014 after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by white police officer Darren Wilson. That incident sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and launched the Black Lives Matter movement that has become a potent force among young people across the country — and particularly here in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray.
Last week, after months of negotiations with the city, the Justice Department filed a civil rights lawsuit to force Ferguson to adopt reforms after its city council reneged on a promise to voluntarily improve the way police and courts treat poor people and minorities. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Ferguson’s rejection of the deal left her no choice given the town’s “ongoing and pervasive” violations of residents’ rights and its misuse of the criminal justice system to generate municipal revenues.
“The city of Ferguson had a real opportunity here to step forward, and instead they’ve turned backward,” she said. “They’ve chosen to live in the past.” Among the changes the department is calling for are a prohibition against officers making arrests without probable cause, installing a federal monitor to oversee policing practices and barring officers from using stun guns as punishment. The plan also called for raising the salaries in the Ferguson police department to attract better recruits and more minority officers.
Ferguson officials claim they can’t afford the changes DOJ is demanding without bankrupting the city. The St. Louis suburb has a population of 21,000 and a total annual budget of just $14 million. A recent financial analysis found that complying with the agreement could cost the city nearly $4 million in the first year alone, and several million more in subsequent years. But if the case goes to trial, as now seems likely, Ferguson could end up paying millions to defend itself in court on top of what it would have spent had it signed off on the reforms.