United States v. Ferguson

Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the Justice Department is suing the Missouri municipality after an agreement on reform broke down.

Carolyn Kaster / AP

The Justice Department filed a wide-ranging lawsuit against Ferguson, Missouri, in federal court Wednesday, accusing the municipality of “a pattern or practice of law enforcement conduct that violates the Constitution and federal civil rights laws,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced.

“Residents of Ferguson have suffered the deprivation of their constitutional rights—the rights guaranteed to all Americans—for decades,” Lynch said. “They have waited decades for justice. They should not be forced to wait any longer.”

The lawsuit’s allegations mirror those in the Justice Department’s landmark Ferguson Report, which was released last March on the same day as a separate report clearing Officer Darren Wilson of civil-rights violations for the shooting death of Michael Brown in August 2014. Brown’s death, alongside the high-profile shootings of unarmed black men and women in other cities, led to violent protests in Ferguson and ignited a national debate over race and policing in the U.S.

Although federal investigators declined to prosecute Wilson for Brown’s death in one report, they effectively indicted Ferguson itself in the other, accusing the city of flagrantly violating federal law and the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The Ferguson Report describes a municipal government transformed into what my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates described as a system of plunder, funded by exorbitant court fines levied against the town’s impoverished black residents, and enforced by a police department for whom the Bill of Rights was an alien concept.

Justice Department lawyers filed the lawsuit Wednesday, a day after the Ferguson City Council unanimously voted to amend a proposed reform agreement negotiated between the city and the federal government. Both sides labored for months to craft a consent decree that would both reform Ferguson’s deeply troubled government and police force as well as avert a protracted legal battle.

Those hopes fell apart when the full scale of the agreement became public last month. Among its requirements: the Ferguson Police Department would no longer oversee the municipal court, stricter use-of-force policies would be drafted, the city’s most egregiously abused ordinances would be repealed, and a federal monitor would be appointed to ensure compliance.

But other conditions seemed more onerous for a municipality of 21,000 people. Ferguson’s annual budget is $14.5 million and the city is already running multimillion dollar deficits, but local officials estimate it will cost $3.7 million a year to carry out the agreement over the next three to five years. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, $1.9 million of that will go toward salary increases: $900,000 to make Ferguson Police Department salaries among the nation’s “most competitive” to attract better-trained officers, and another $1 million to raise salaries for other city government employees to keep pace.

Another contentious point in the agreement, according to the Post-Dispatch, was a clause that would uphold the reforms even if city officials disbanded the Ferguson Police Department.

One provision in the decree, which the city released to the public two weeks ago, says that all the requirements would apply to any agency that took over policing in Ferguson. By removing that stipulation, Ferguson could disband its police force and sidestep a large part of the agreement.

In an interview after the meeting, Councilman Wesley Bell acknowledged the change was significant, but said the tight deadline under which the city was operating left Ferguson little choice but to ask the provision be removed.

“If we get to the point where we have to disband our police department, which honestly I don’t see happening, but let’s say it does happen, no department is going to take us on with those conditions without charging twice as much,” Bell said. “It’s not a ‘no’ on the provision. It’s, ‘Let’s talk about the provision. Let’s figure out something we can all live with that actually makes sense.’”

In their vote Tuesday, Ferguson’s seven-member city council unanimously approved seven changes to the drafted agreement, including the removal of the “most competitive” requirement and the disbanding provision. City lawyers warned that the vote would almost certainly guarantee a federal lawsuit in retaliation. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division followed through within 24 hours.

For Ferguson, a victory in the courts is unlikely. The Justice Department has launched 67 investigations since Congress empowered it to sue police departments for civil-rights violations in 1994 after the Rodney King beating, according to the Washington Post. Of those, 66 led to consent decrees for the departments targeted—and Justice Department lawyers are appealing a lower-court defeat to obtain the 67th one.