Ferguson police agree to massive overhaul under federal oversight

In recent years, consent decrees have become an increasingly common way for the federal government to guide municipal police departments through difficult reforms.

Jeff Roberson/AP/File
Police and Missouri National Guardsmen face protesters gathered in front of the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Mo., Nov. 28, 2014. The Justice Department has reached a tentative agreement with Ferguson on systemic changes following the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014, city officials announced Wednesday. The recommended overhaul to the Ferguson Police Department and the city’s municipal court system follows seven months of negotiations and likely averts a civil rights lawsuit that federal officials can bring against departments that resist changing their policing practices.

Ferguson, Mo., the city that gained national attention after a fatal 2014 police shooting, released details on Wednesday of a deal with the US Justice Department to reform its police department.

The Ferguson police department came under federal scrutiny after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American, by a white Ferguson police officer. The shooting ignited renewed tensions between the police department and the majority black community it serves.

The Justice Department initiated a federal probe into the small police force and issued a critical report last year that found discriminatory actions taken by Ferguson police, which included excessive force, excessive citations and arbitrary traffic stops. 

A year and a half since Michael Brown’s death on Aug. 9, 2014, a proposed consent decree to reform could be a path forward for the city. In recent years, consent decrees have become an increasingly common way for the federal government to guide municipal police departments through difficult reforms.

“They are an effective and almost necessary remedy for troubled police departments, and I define troubled police departments as those that are incapable of reforming themselves,” Sam Walker, a professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska who has written extensively on police accountability, told The Christian Science Monitor after the city of Cleveland entered into a similar consent decree last May.

Under the proposed agreement, the Ferguson police department would be required to give bias-awareness training to its officers and implement a system to make officers accountable for stop, search, and arrest practices and ensure they do not discriminate based on race.

Patrol officers, supervisors, and jail workers will need to be outfitted with body cameras within 180 days of the agreement taking effect. The cameras will be activated for all traffic stops, searches, arrests, and encounters with people having a mental health emergency.

In all, the agreement points to a total overhaul for the police practices in Ferguson and city officials agree to requite parts of the municipal code to limit fines and jail time for small infractions.

"The entire Ferguson community has reason to be proud" about the deal, Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, wrote in a letter to the mayor of Ferguson on Tuesday. It will "ensure that police and court services in Ferguson are provided in a manner that fully promotes public safety, respects the fundamental rights of all Ferguson residents, and makes policing in Ferguson safer and more rewarding for officers."

"The agreement also will ensure that the city's stated commitment to refocusing police and municipal court practices on public safety, rather than revenue generation, takes root and will not be undone," Ms. Gupta said in her letter.

Ferguson’s city council will vote on the proposed agreement on Feb. 9 and will hold meetings for the public before the vote. 

The agreement likely prevents a federal civil rights lawsuit that can be brought against police departments that resist changing practices seen as excessive or discriminatory by federal officials.

This report contains material from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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