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Consent decree proponents disrupt Ferguson meeting

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III (backround center left) tries to continue city council business on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, as protesters disrupt proceedings in response to the body's 6-0 vote earlier this month to amend the consent decree with the U. S. Justice Department, effectively rejecting the agreement and inviting a lawsuit. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

FERGUSON • The U.S. Department of Justice has assured city officials that they can still resolve a costly lawsuit by approving a proposal to overhaul its police and court practices, according to a letter obtained by the Post-Dispatch.

The Justice Department also suggested that the price of reform isn’t nearly as expensive as has been portrayed.

The clarifications couldn’t have come at a more critical time: The Ferguson City Council is expected to vote within days on an agreement with the Justice Department after effectively rejecting it less than a month ago.

“We are fully prepared to litigate this matter,” wrote Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in a letter dated Friday. “Should the city wish to avoid the litigation process we submit that the alternative is to sign the agreement...”

The letter rebuts the notion that a provision requiring Ferguson to offer police competitive salaries means that officers and other employees must receive 25 percent pay increases, as a prominent city official had previously asserted.

“We have always been clear that the salary provision neither requires any specific salary increase nor prohibits increases from being implemented over a reasonable time period,” Gupta wrote.

As the Post-Dispatch reported last week, the council is expected to vote on the agreement on Tuesday — weeks after a new appointment to the council created a shift in favor of accepting a consent decree, but before a municipal election in April.

Ferguson Councilman Wesley Bell said Gupta’s letter clearly indicates that the Justice Department has no intention of bankrupting the city. The document, he said, should ease the fears of those opposed mostly for financial reasons to the agreement, called a “consent decree.”

“It’s time for everyone to rally behind this decree and move the city forward,” Bell said.

Bell confirmed that the agreement would likely be added to the council’s agenda for a meeting on Tuesday for a first reading.

“I will be supporting it,” he said. “‘No’ was never an option for me.”

Concerns about agreement

Last month, the council voted to accept the decree, but only with certain conditions, one of which would have effectively diluted its power.

The city sought to eliminate the so-called “poison pill” clause that made the decree apply to any other agency providing policing in Ferguson. The revision allowed Ferguson to circumvent most of the decree by disbanding its police department.

The Justice Department sued the city the next day.

But at that same meeting, council members also appointed Laverne Mitchom, a retired educator, to fill a council seat vacated when Brian Fletcher, a former mayor died of a heart attack in January.

Fletcher had founded the “I love Ferguson” campaign and never passed up a chance to extol the city’s virtues.

Mitchom, on the other hand, had participated in the protests following Michael Brown’s death in August 2014, an event that sparked the Justice Department investigation into the city’s police and court practices.

The Justice Department investigation produced a 105-page report alleging patterns of illegal stops, searches, and arrests — driven partly by racial bias.

City leaders encouraged the abuses, which violated the Constitution’s First, Fourth and 14th Amendments, in the interest of raising revenue, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said.

In the aftermath of the report, the Justice Department and Ferguson spent 26 weeks negotiating a 131-page consent decree — one of the most comprehensive such agreements ever produced.

The city released it to the public in late January, holding hearings for its residents over a two-week period.

At those meetings, some residents expressed concerns that the expense of enacting the lengthy list of reforms would lead to the city’s dissolution — fears that were only heightened by a presentation from Ferguson’s finance director, Jeffrey Blume.

Of the decree’s more than 450 provisions, one requires Ferguson to develop a plan to offer police salaries that are among the “most competitive” with comparable agencies in St. Louis County.

Blume said the city had interpreted the provision to mean that Ferguson had to give 25 percent raises not only to police officers but all employees — raising the cost of abiding by the decree to $3.7 million in the first year.

But a Post-Dispatch analysis found that to arrive at that number, city officials appeared to have accelerated deadlines in the agreement, used inappropriate salary data and ignored the context of the “most-competitive” phrase.

Letter stresses collaboration

Gupta’s letter is unequivocal that the federal government will not accept the modifications the city “unilaterally made to the agreement” last month. But it also reveals an expectation that both parties will work collaboratively and that the city may have some latitude in carrying out the reforms.

That sentiment was mostly absent in the City Council’s previous deliberations about approving the decree.

“… as we made clear during our negotiations,” Gupta wrote, “the precise contours of implementation … would be developed over time in close coordination and consultation with City officials, the Department of Justice, the independent monitor and the court.”

Gupta also suggests that her department has a significant stake in Ferguson’s financial health.

“The Department of Justice has a strong interest in ensuring the sustainability of the reforms in our consent decrees and we understand that sustainability often, as a practical matter, requires attention to the financial condition of the local jurisdiction during the implementation stage,” Gupta wrote.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III did not immediately return a voice message on Sunday. But he has repeatedly pointed to the numbers provided by Blume as evidence that the cost of abiding by the decree would be more expensive than fighting the federal government in court.

In an exchange with National Public Radio’s Ari Shapiro last month, Knowles went even further, saying he had seen no evidence that the city’s practices had violated the Constitution.

“I have not been presented with a case from the Department of Justice nor have we been able to identify specific instances in which this has occurred,” Knowles said.

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Stephen Deere is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.