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US Justice Department loses patience with Ferguson City Council

Members of the Ferguson City Council have said that financial obstacles prevent them from accepting the Department of Justice's suggested reforms whole-cloth.

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    Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III (c.) talks to the media after the Ferguson, Mo., city council meeting in Ferguson on Tuesday, where the council voted to approve a modified consent decree with the United States Department of Justice. The Department of Justice deemed the modifications unacceptable and on Wednesday began legal proceedings to sue the city.
    David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP
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The US Department of Justice is suing the city of Ferguson, Mo., over the City Council's resistance to absorb the costs associated with federally structured reforms of the city's justice system.

After being surprised by proposed last minute amendments to a reform deal, the Justice Department began legal proceedings on Wednesday to sue the city. An earlier inquiry by the Justice Department found policing polices in the city to be biased against minorities and used to generate revenue.

On Tuesday, the Ferguson City Council had agreed to the DOJ's proposed reforms, but with seven amendments designed to lower the costs of implementation. The amendments were deemed unacceptable by the Justice Department.

"The residents of Ferguson have waited nearly a year for their city to adopt an agreement that would protect their rights and keep them safe," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a news conference after the announcement.

Mayor James Knowles said reforms had to be affordable, saying at a news conference, “"It serves no one's purpose for us to fail.”

Ferguson gained national notoriety as a symbol of systemic problems in policing and race relations after an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, was killed by a white police officer in 2014. The St. Louis suburb was one of the main sites of protests and the focal point of the national conversation. 

A subsequent Justice Department report came down hard on the state of Ferguson’s police and court system.

“Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs,” the Justice Department reported. “African Americans experience disparate impact in nearly every aspect of Ferguson’s law enforcement system.”

Despite the city’s troubled past, some sympathize with its dire financial situation.

“Money is definitely a part of the equation” for municipalities with poor relations between police and citizens, Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations in Alexandria, Va, told The Christian Science Monitor. 

Ferguson has a working budget of $14.5 million and is facing a $2.8 million deficit without the reform costs. Estimates for the reform deal place that first year’s costs at up to $3.7 million and between $1.8 million and $3 million the second and third year.

The biggest proposed amendment to the plan was to remove a clause stating Ferguson had to increase the wages of police officers, which officials believe could result in nearly $1 million annually for Ferguson.

A civil rights lawsuit could be another source of financial burden.

“We made clear that our goal was to reach an agreement to avoid litigation,” Ms. Lynch said at the news conference. “But we also made clear that if there was no agreement, we would be forced to go to court to protect the rights of Ferguson residents.”

This report contains material from Reuters.

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