Ferguson police overhaul: Residents finally have their say

The City Council will vote on a proposed overhaul of the police department, meant to protect safety and civil rights, after a series of public hearings. 

Jeff Roberson/AP/File
Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson (l.) hugs a marcher in a parade honoring Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 8. A year and a half after the teenager was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, the city has reached a settlement with the US Department of Justice to reshape its police practices.

A year and a half after Michael Brown's death prompted waves of protests across the United States, the residents of Ferguson, Mo., will finally have their say on the city's settlement with the Department of Justice, which outlines changes in policing recommended to avoid a civil rights lawsuit. 

On February 9, the City Council will vote on a 131-page proposed consent decree, which was announced January 27. On Tuesday, residents are invited to the first of three public hearings on the decree, which would institute sweeping changes from police conduct to the city's municipal code, following a Justice investigation which revealed excessive force and patterns of baseless but profitable citations and traffic stops. The majority of the St. Louis suburb is black, although the police force is mostly white. 

Approving the decree's changes could prevent a civil rights lawsuit from the Department of Justice, and meet some of protesters' demands, but comes with a "significant" price tag, Ferguson spokesman Jeff Small said. The city is facing a $2.8 million deficit, in part due to legal fees, police costs, and lowered court fees, and will ask voters to approve two new taxes in April: one sales tax on economic development, and one property tax that would cost homeowners about $76 more for a $100,000 home.

"It's going to depend on the public," Mr. Small said. "We're not just going to negotiate and say, 'Boom. This is what you have to live with as a community.' "

Ferguson has been a focus of nationwide protests over police violence, particularly against black men, since the August 9, 2014, death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by then-Officer Darren Wilson. A grand jury failed to indict Mr. Wilson in Mr. Brown's death. He resigned in November 2014.

A subsequent Department of Justice report released in March 2015 criticized the police department for its focus on "generating revenue" from court fines, and imprisoning people who could not afford to pay. The proposed sections would end that practice.

The decree also seeks to heal broken trust between the police force and the mostly-black community it serves. Officers would receive annual anti-bias training, require law enforcement workers to wear and activate cameras on the job, overhaul police guidelines for interacting with citizens, and recruit more minority police officers.

According to the agreement, 

The ability of a police department to protect the community it serves is only as strong as the relationship it has with that community. The provisions of this Agreement are meant to ensure protection of the constitutional and other legal rights of all members of the community, improve Ferguson’s ability to effectively prevent crime, enhance both officer and public safety, and increase public confidence in the Ferguson Police Department (FPD).

"Neither side received everything that they requested, and both sides made concessions in order to reach an agreement," says a statement from the city of Ferguson, released after the decree. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press. 

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