Somewhere a compromise should have been possible, preventing the Justice Department from filing a lawsuit on Wednesday against Ferguson, Mo., to get the St. Louis suburb to fully comply with an agreement to improve how the police and courts equitably treat people of color in that majority black city.
Last month negotiators with the the city and Justice Department reached a tentative agreement to end civil rights abuses in which Ferguson police regularly used racial profiling to violate the rights of people in the mostly black city of 21,000 people. The agreement followed a Justice Department investigation of the city after the Aug. 9, 2014, fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
A separate investigation resulted in no charges against the police officer in the killing. However, the investigation of the Police Department pointed to the need for many changes in the city, where protests and unrest continued for more than a year after Brown’s death. The killing in Ferguson led to the Black Lives Matter movement and attention being brought to police killings of African American males in cities nationwide.
Although a tentative agreement had been worked out after seven months of negotiation, the Ferguson City Council on Tuesday balked at accepting all of the conditions. A city analysis showed that the cost for the first year alone would be up to $3.7 million and $1.8 million to $3 million in each of the second and third years of the pact.
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That raised concerns that the city could go bankrupt, particularly because it no longer could use ticketing, fines and court costs of black residents as an unconstitutional revenue stream for City Hall. Part of the agreement called for the average pay and benefits for about 50 police officers in the city to increase by $14,600.
There is no question that racism — when discovered — is more costly than anyone could imagine.
The 131-page agreement calls for more community policing, mediation and outreach efforts by the department with residents. It also requires all patrol officers, supervisors and jail workers to wear body cameras and microphones, and the equipment is to be inside police squad cars.
The cameras have to be recording on all traffic stops, arrests, searches and encounters with people thought to be experiencing mental health issues.
The plan is meant to create an accountability and a credibility between the police, municipal court, city officials and the community they are supposed to serve. The Ferguson City Council voted unanimously to accept the Justice Department’s proposals if federals officials would agree to seven changes, including changing the deadlines in the agreement, not mandating any salary increases for police officers and altering certain fees.
Rather than file a lawsuit, which Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the very next day, the Justice Department should have worked with Ferguson officials to find a way to help the city cover the expenses that will have to be absorbed to make the badly needed changes possible. The Missouri legislature also should have gotten involved to help Ferguson with the expenses. After all it did happen under the noses of state officials, who conveniently looked the other way until Ferguson blew up after Brown’s death.
Perhaps the lawsuit will lead to negotiations that will enable all parties to agree on the needed changes and the costs to make policing and governance in Ferguson better.