Ferguson mayor: With costs clarified, DOJ agreement near

AP News
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Posted: Mar 07, 2016 4:46 PM

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Ferguson city leaders could end a potentially costly lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice as early as this month, now that the federal agency has assured them its plan to overhaul the city's embattled police and court system won't create an unmanageable financial burden, the mayor said Monday.

City council members were concerned Ferguson might go bankrupt trying to implement changes outlined in the agreement, which stemmed from a scathing DOJ review of city operations that included allegations of routine civil rights violations against black residents. The investigation came after the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, whose death helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement.

In a letter to city leaders dated Friday, Vanita Gupta, head of Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, clarified financial details of the plan — including that the city wouldn't be required to provide pay raises to its police officers, a provision that could have cost nearly $1 million. Gupta also said Ferguson could avoid litigation by signing the original agreement and notes the possibility of technical assistance and grant money for Ferguson.

"We feel like we're going to be in that cost range that we can afford," Mayor James Knowles III said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We now have in writing from the DOJ that they will take very seriously these cost issues with us."

Knowles said the City Council will meet Tuesday to tentatively approve the agreement. A final vote is expected March 22. The DOJ declined to comment Monday.

The Ferguson City Council rejected the agreement after a city analysis indicated the cost could reach nearly $4 million in the first year alone. Instead, the council approved an amended agreement that included seven provisions aimed mostly at keeping costs in check. Attorney General Loretta Lynch filed suit a day later, saying the vote amounted to a rejection of a settlement that had been negotiated for months with a team from Ferguson.

The agency began investigating Ferguson amid the fallout after Brown, who was black and unarmed, was fatally shot by a white Ferguson police officer in August 2014. The officer, Darren Wilson, was cleared of wrongdoing and resigned in November 2014. The Justice Department issued its report four months later, and within days the city's police chief, municipal judge and city manager had resigned.

In her letter, Gupta noted that "it is not uncommon for financial or staffing challenges to arise" when implementing such DOJ agreements.

"Provided those challenges are genuine, approached in good faith, and not pretexts for non-compliance, we are committed to working with jurisdictions to overcome those challenges," she wrote.

Knowles said the letter serves as a legal document that Ferguson could take to a judge if costs of the agreement cause financial hardship.

Even without mandatory police pay raises, the agreement doesn't come cheap. Ferguson must provide additional training for police, hire a monitor to oversee improvements, and incur other costs.

"We feel moving forward that we're in a strong position to be successful in this consent decree," Knowles said. "So we're excited to be able to put this to bed and move past it, and continue to work with our residents, our law enforcement and others to really build the premiere policing agency in St. Louis (County)."