The Ferguson City Council is playing a game of chicken with the U.S. Department of Justice that it is bound to lose.
The city’s leaders are fooling themselves if they think the consent decree it worked out with the Justice Department after months of negotiation is up for retooling. Ferguson has no leverage in revising the decree, which is intended to reform the city’s police department and municipal court.
The council voted Tuesday night to seek revisions to the decree. The Justice Department responded with a lawsuit Wednesday.
The decree does not require Ferguson police to do anything other than what any police department committed to modern law enforcement and the constitutional protection of individual rights would do.
But those reforms come at a cost, which is a sticking point for a city that has lost its ATM-like municipal court and is already $2.8 million in the hole.
Ferguson sent the decree back to the DOJ with seven proposed revisions. Among them: The city doesn’t want to pay higher salaries for police or other city employees. And, should it hire another agency to take over the police department or other city services, it doesn’t want the consent decree terms to apply to the new agency.
It’s important to note that the St. Louis County police have been operating under a less onerous agreement with the DOJ since October. The Justice Department made 109 recommendations to help the department build better community policing skills and engender better relations with the roughly 407,000 area residents it serves.
If Ferguson contracts with the county for police services — which is what it should do — those officers would be following the DOJ’s recommendations, which are not likely to be much different from those sought in Ferguson. There may be a cost difference between what the city has been paying its police force and what it would pay the county, but it’s worth it if the residents of Ferguson get quality policing.
If Ferguson tries to stick with its own police force, the requirement that it raise salaries is intended to ensure it will hire and train the best officers available. That, too, is reasonable.
Ferguson is being asked to guarantee it will not run a substandard police department that discriminates against African-Americans. It will be expensive, but so was the decision to hire a $1,355-an-hour lawyer to negotiate with the Justice Department. The sooner Ferguson can stop paying lawyers the better off it will be.
Ferguson should hire the county police. It should work with the Justice Department on a reasonable compromise between what the county’s already doing and what DOJ wants done in Ferguson. Good faith would go a long way, and be a nice change.