The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the City of Ferguson, Missouri, to force the city to reform its police department and court system after the government found both had violated citizens’ civil rights and were especially biased against minorities.
In announcing the lawsuit late Wednesday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said her department was forced to proceed with legal action after the Ferguson City Council voted unanimously the day before to revise a tentative agreement to reform the police and courts, which had been “painstakingly” negotiated between the DOJ and the city.
“A few weeks ago, the Department of Justice and Ferguson’s own negotiators came to an agreement that was both fair and cost-effective and that would provide all the residents of Ferguson the constitutional and effective policing and court practices guaranteed to all Americans,” Lynch said. “As agreed, it was presented to the Ferguson City Council for approval or rejection, and last night, the city council rejected the consent decree approved by their own negotiators. Their decision leaves us no further choice.”
Members of the Ferguson City Council have said they felt the reforms as agreed to with the DOJ were too expensive to implement, but have not issued official comment. The city council itself is diverse, with three white men, two Black men and one Black woman. Following the vote, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles told a hastily called press conference that reforms had to be affordable. “It serves no one’s purpose for us to fail,” he said.
“I think the city of Ferguson had a real opportunity to step forward here,” Lynch said in her announcement. “Instead, they have chosen to step in the past.”
Lynch, visibly annoyed by the city council’s rejection of the agreement, said: “The residents of Ferguson have waited nearly a year for their city to adopt an agreement that would protect their rights and keep them safe. They have waited nearly a year for their police department to accept rules that would ensure their constitutional rights and that thousands of other police departments follow every day.They have waited nearly a year for their municipal courts to commit to basic, reasonable rules and standards.But as our report made clear, the residents of Ferguson have suffered the deprivation of their constitutional rights the rights guaranteed to all Americans for decades.They have waited decades for justice.They should not be forced to wait any longer.”
The residents of Ferguson should not be forced to wait any longer. https://t.co/f6SIjOqWq0
AG Loretta Lynch (@LorettaLynch) February 10, 2016
The Justice Department initiated a civil rights investigation into Ferguson’s policing and courts after unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown was killed by former Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, in 2014. The killing served as a catalyst for the growing debate about the use of excessive force by police, especially against minorities in general and young Black men in particular.
While a St. Louis Countygrand jury declined to indict Wilson, and the Justice Department said it would not pursue federal civil rights charges against him, the DOJ did initiate a wide-ranging investigation of Ferguson’s police and court systems, which found they disproportionately targeted and violated the rights of African Americanresidents, who make up more than 70 percent of the city’spopulation.
Lynch said the government’s investigation into Ferguson found a “pattern or practice of law enforcement conduct that violates the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution and federal civil rights laws,” adding:
“Our investigation uncovered a community in distress, in which residents felt under assault by their own police force. The Ferguson Police Department’s violations were expansive and deliberate. They violated the Fourth Amendment by stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without cause and using unreasonable force. They made enforcement decisions based on the way individuals expressed themselves and unnecessarily escalated non-threatening situations. These violations were not only egregious they were routine.”
She continued: “They were encouraged by the city in the interest of raising revenue. They were driven, at least in part, by racial bias and occurred disproportionately against African-American residents. And they were profoundly and fundamentally unconstitutional. These findings were based upon information received from Ferguson’s own citizens, from Ferguson’s own records and from Ferguson’s own officials. And they demonstrated a clear pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution and federal law.”
Lynch said she and the Justice Department “intend to aggressively prosecute this case and I have no doubt that we will prevail.”