The more we learn about the Ferguson City Council’s decision to reject key terms of a consent decree with the Department of Justice and fight it out in court, the less sense it makes. The council seems intent on inflating cost estimates as a tactic to avoid compliance. Members should reconsider before it’s too late.
“There is no chance, zero, that the city of the Ferguson will prevail in this kamikaze mission,” police accountability expert Scott Greenwood told the Post-Dispatch’s Stephen Deere. “They are never ever likely to get the deal that they had. ... It will never be that good again.”
Greenwood works for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been involved in dozens of consent decree negotiations with police departments around the country. None of the precedents augur well for Ferguson’s case. The DOJ filed suit Feb. 10, the day after the council objected to seven of the 464 points in the consent decree its representatives had negotiated with Justice Department lawyers.
Rather than collaborate and rely on the federal judge who will oversee the agreement to handle sticky issues, the city decided to tug on Superman’s cape. Ferguson officials still don’t quite understand that they can’t wing it anymore.
Ferguson’s objections center on the costs involved. The city’s already got a $2.8 million budget deficit. Its municipal court cash cow has been severely restricted. The cost of monitoring the consent degree has been pegged at $350,000 a year, but other costs have not been publicly quantified. That should have been the first step.
Instead, the city’s estimates keep going up, more than quadrupling in one 10-day period from $800,000 to $3.7 million.
Ferguson’s finance director, Jeffrey Blume, has not explained his calculations. He was heavily criticized in the DOJ’s report on police and courts in Ferguson for having leaned on the police department to crank out more ticket revenue.
One big worry for Ferguson is that the consent decree calls for making police officer salaries among the most competitive if matched with comparable agencies in St. Louis County. Right now a Ferguson patrol officer is paid $48,736. The city believes officers need average raises of $12,100 to fulfill the DOJ mandate and put Ferguson’s officers in line with those in more affluent county municipalities. The idea is that better-trained, better-paid officers would provide better service.
Ferguson may also have inflated the cost of the training that officers would be required to undergo, as well as the ripple effect that police pay raises would have on other city employees. The city may have underestimated the Justice Department’s willingness to negotiate deadlines.
It would make no sense for the DOJ to go through this exercise just to put the city out of business. But Ferguson’s foot-dragging is inviting that outcome.
Kevin Horrigan • 314-340-8135
@oldsport on Twitter