Ferguson mayor: City told DOJ agreement no sure thing

AP News
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Posted: Feb 12, 2016 5:06 PM

FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — Ferguson leaders warned U.S. Department of Justice negotiators last month that they couldn't guarantee approval of a plan to address the agency's scathing review of the city's police and courts, including allegations that the civil rights of black residents were routinely violated, Ferguson's mayor said Friday.

The DOJ sued the St. Louis suburb on Wednesday, a day after the City Council approved a revised settlement that the Justice Department said amounted to rejection. City leaders said the changes were necessary because Ferguson couldn't afford all of the settlement's requirements, including huge pay raises for police that could cost nearly $1 million annually.

Mayor James Knowles III told The Associated Press that the federal agency knew city officials wanted community input before approving the settlement, adding that he was surprised the DOJ didn't tell the city which changes were unacceptable before suing. A letter from the DOJ's Civil Rights Division on Jan. 26 noted that the city "intends to vote on February 9 on whether to accept this agreement," but the DOJ has long said the settlement — the result of seven months of negotiations with Ferguson — was sought to avoid a civil rights lawsuit.

"At the end of the negotiations, they asked us to sign an agreement saying we were committed to supporting the document as written," Knowles said. "The negotiating committee refused and told them we would not sign anything until the people of Ferguson had an opportunity to weigh in on this."

Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson declined to comment Friday. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch noted Wednesday, when announcing the lawsuit, that Ferguson's own negotiating team helped reach the agreement.

The Justice Department began investigating Ferguson amid the fallout from the fatal shooting of black 18-year-old resident Michael Brown, who was unarmed, by a white Ferguson police officer in August 2014. The officer, Darren Wilson, was cleared of wrongdoing and resigned in November 2014.

The agreement was announced in late January, and the Ferguson City Council later hosted three public hearings that drew hundreds of people. Many spoke in favor of the agreement, but others expressed concern it could bankrupt the city or force it to dissolve. A cost analysis completed last week suggested the deal would cost the financially struggling city between $2.2 million and $3.7 million in the first year, and up to $3 million in each of the following two years.

Lynch also said Wednesday that Ferguson routinely violates residents' rights — especially black residents — and misuses law enforcement to generate revenue. She said the unconstitutional practices were "ongoing and pervasive."

But the mayor said the city has implemented several changes over the past 18 months, including adoption of a community policing model. Police officers are now assigned to specific neighborhoods and encouraged to get to know residents and business owners, and body and dashboard cameras are mandatory for all officers. Knowles said three of the five new officers hired in the past six months are black.

The municipal court, now headed by a black judge, also has been overhauled, including ending the practice of requiring bond money or jail time for warrants issued for minor traffic offenses or housing code violations. City ordinance and state law now limit revenue from municipal violations to 12.5 percent of the city budget, compared to a previous maximum of 30 percent.

Knowles said more changes are coming, including a City Council vote on establishing a review board for police.

"Our goal is something we can afford and allow our city to thrive," Knowles said. "If we can't do that we're not serving anybody's best interest."