Ferguson city council chose cost over justice, say residents

After months of negotiation with the Department of Justice, the Ferguson city council approved a plan for police reform – but with some last minute cost caveats.

David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP
Ferguson mayor 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. It is unclear if the Department of Justice will agree to the modifications the city made to the agreement.

The Ferguson, Mo., city council approved an agreement with the US Justice Department Tuesday, but with several amendments to the original plan. 

The agreement aims to reform the unconstitutional and discriminatory injustices in the city identified during a DOJ investigation, spurred by the 2014 fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.

And after seven months of negotiating with the DOJ, the council approved the settlement in a unanimous vote Tuesday – contingent on seven changes to the deal. 

The council agreed to the majority of the provisions, which include bias-awareness training for police officers, implementation of an accountability system, required body-cameras for cops, and an overhaul of the municipal court system. 

But the seven amendments mostly surround the deal’s expensive price tag. The city evaluated the cost at around $3.7 million for the first year of implementation and $1.8 to $3 million for each of the following two years. 

With an annual budget of $14.5 million, this plan would have a serious financial impact on the city, argued the mayor and other council members. Especially since the city is already facing a $2.8 million deficit since Brown’s shooting, caused by riot expenses such as overtime for police, legal expenses, and businesses damaged by fires and looting.   

One of the council’s most notable changes removes a 25 percent pay raise for all of the city’s police officers. 

Not only would this salary raise be costly, but it would trigger raise requests from other government employees like firefighters, Jeffrey Blume, Ferguson’s finance director, said during negotiations on Saturday. “If that were to come to pass, that would be approximately $1 million,” he estimated.

“This is a reflection of trying to make this work for everybody’s concerns,” said Mayor James Knowles III. Councilmen Wesley Bell, who proposed the changes, says there’s nothing “unreasonable” about the amendments. 

But the DOJ says they have already spent months working on the reform deal with the St. Louis suburb, and the time for negotiating is over. 

“The Ferguson City Council has attempted to unilaterally amend the negotiated agreement,” Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. “Their vote to do so creates an unnecessary delay in the essential work to bring constitutional policy to the city, and marks an unfortunate outcome for concerned community members and Ferguson police officers.” 

The council meeting was moved to Ferguson Community Center because of the boisterous crowd of around 300. For these citizens, the decision is between money and justice. 

“Cost should never be the reason not to do what’s right,” said Kayla Green, a black resident of Ferguson. “It is time to prioritize justice no matter how much it costs because justice is priceless.” 

“We cannot afford to keep treating our citizens like this,” said Ferguson resident Nikki Brandt at a public hearing Saturday. “That is the cost.” 

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund agreed, urging the council to readily accept the reform deal as-is. 

“We forcefully reject the contention that the agreement will be to expensive to implement; no civil right is too costly to enforce or protect,” the LDR said in a statement. “The approval of the consent decree is an urgent matter than cannot wait.” 

The council says it will begin to implement the revised version of the agreement immediately, but it is not official until it undergoes federal approval. 

This report contains material from Reuters and The Associated Press.

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