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Ferguson reaches compromise with Justice Department

Ferguson City Council accepted the terms of a DOJ report aiming to reform its police and court system after promises the deal could be altered to avoid bankrupting the city.

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    Ferguson activist Alicia Street (r.) presents Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III (l.) with a small box of trinkets following a city council meeting Tuesday, in Ferguson, Mo., after the city council unanimously agreed to accept a US Justice Department plan to overhaul its police force.
    Jeff Roberson/AP
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Ferguson City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to accept the sweeping overhaul of its police and court system the Justice Department demanded in February.

This agreement followed a testy exchange that highlighted the complex reality of implementing well-intentioned reforms in a fiscally tense environment. The city council accepted the agreement in principle last month but had requested a compromise over cost concerns; the Department of Justice responded one day later by suing the city.

“Money is definitely a part of the equation," in improving police community relations, Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations in Alexandria, Va., told The Christian Science Monitor.

The city quickly gave its consent to avoid a lawsuit, but Vanita Gupta, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, promised to drop the requirement that the city raise salaries of police officers, which the city council said would bankrupt the city.

The concessions and compromise, even activists agree, were necessary for very practical reasons. The city of Ferguson was close to broke, and some suggest its budget woes helped create the tense environment that exploded into violent protests around the city, as Patrik Jonsson reported for the Monitor:

In many ways, the eruption of anger that occurred in Ferguson after [Michael] Brown’s death had its roots in the city’s struggles to pay its bills. The Justice Department investigation found that the city used its police officers partly as a shakedown crew to fund its operations. In 2011, 13 percent of operational revenues came from tickets and fees collected by the municipal court; in 2013, that had risen to 20 percent.

The city council said the demands of the Justice Department were prohibitively expensive and offered no funding plan, and the Missouri legislature had already capped what the city could spend on its court system to 12.5 percent, even as the city remained $3 million in debt.

The city estimated the Justice Department's plan would cost $4 million to implement for one year and $10 million in the first three years. Even the amendments the city proposed in February cost $1 million in the first year, followed by $700,000 and $600,000.

The shooting and death of Mr. Brown, an unarmed black man, by police prompted violent protests in 2014. Neither a grand jury nor a federal investigation indicted the white officer who shot Brown, but the Justice Department found patterns of racial bias among the city’s police force. According to the DOJ report, practices of arresting or fining blacks disproportionately and using police as a collection agency had caused a “toxic environment.”

The protests ultimately lead to the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has demonstrated for police reform and heightened awareness of racial issues in several of America’s major cities.

Ferguson has already made several, cost-free changes to improve race relations. All three new representatives who have joined the city council since 2014 are black.

"The world is watching us. We've got an opportunity to show what change looks like," said Wesley Bell, one of the new city council members, according to The Associated Press. "Shame on us if we can't meet this challenge."

This report contains material from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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