Justice Dept. sues Ferguson for civil rights, but city might have a point

Even criminal justice reform advocates acknowledge that Ferguson, Mo., is broke, and the Justice Department's demands will be expensive. 

David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP
Mike Brown Sr. (c.) listens to the Ferguson city council meeting in Ferguson, Mo., Tuesday.

The Ferguson, Mo., city council threw up its hands on Tuesday, saying that Department of Justice is asking it to undertake criminal justice reforms that are financially impossible for the taxpayers of the struggling St. Louis suburb.

The Justice Department responded Wednesday, filing a civil rights lawsuit against the city to enforce the plan.

Specifically, the Ferguson City Council on Tuesday dismissed parts of a consent decree reached in the wake of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by a police officer. Among other things, the agreement called for a $14,000 increase in salaries and benefits for police officers to recruit stronger applicants, as well as an increase in police staffing levels. In all, the plan would cost $10 million over three years to implement, the city estimates. 

To some, the city council’s vote seemed an attempt to back out of reforms needed to address what the DOJ called endemic racism in Ferguson’s police department. One resident called the vote “white supremacy’s last stand in Ferguson,” according to an account in USA Today.

But others, including criminal justice experts, say Ferguson’s complaint has some merit. The Justice Department, after all, did not say how Ferguson should pay for the reforms. And Ferguson is already stretched to its financial limits.

It is $3 million in debt, and even if residents pass a round of property and sales tax increases in April, the city is facing layoffs, officials say.

Ferguson’s situation actually highlights a broader problem that echoes nationwide, says Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. 

“All of this circles back to: How do you properly fund the criminal justice system?” she says. “There are so many … ways we fund our criminal justice system that incentivize the wrong outcomes.”

In many ways, the eruption of anger that occurred in Ferguson after Mr. 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.  

As police mostly ticketed minorities and judges refused to waive fees, distrust and frustration rose – exploding in the aftermath of the Brown killing, the investigation found.

In response, the Missouri legislature capped at 12.5 percent the court’s share of Ferguson’s municipal budget. That has added to the city’s budget pressures. Neither the legislature nor the governor has proposed new ways for cities to raise money, leaving city officials with few options.

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

But it’s a crucial equation to get right, he adds, because cities’ financial problems are often intertwined with crime problems.

“As the city of Detroit has found, to solve the money problems, you really have to solve the public safety problems,” he says. “It’s not an unsolvable problem. It does take political willpower and citizens of every race and gender and demographic status to buy in and say, ‘I want to live in a safe community.’ I think that is a legitimate expectation.”

Ferguson’s pushback against the Department of Justice’s demands highlights how broad reform efforts may require a more focused public investment, experts say. This includes rethinking how billions of federal and state law enforcement dollars are spent and distributed.

It’s an issue that goes far beyond Ferguson.

The Brennan Center for Justice has found that about 10 million Americans owe more than $50 billion in debt to courts, suggesting that users are financing a large share of the growth of the country’s criminal justice system. US criminal justice costs – from policing to prisons – rose from $35 billion in 1982 to more than $265 billion in 2012.

President Obama’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing was established in part to address inequities such as the ones found in Ferguson. But critics said the final report missed an opportunity to review some $3.8 billion in annual federal funding. One need is to support outcomes that both reduce crime and unnecessary arrests and imprisonment.

The Department of Justice has begun to make some changes. Recently, the Justice Department removed questions that asked police departments how many arrests were made using grant funds, in part because the questions were used by law enforcement to set local priorities.

But such tweaks won’t immediately help Ferguson, and some argue that the costs incurred by the Justice Department consent decree goes beyond what the city of 21,000 people – the majority of them poor – can handle by themselves.

“I would rather lose our city by fighting in court than losing it to DOJ’s crushing demands,” long-time resident Susan Ankenbrand told the city council Tuesday, according to USA Today.

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