Citing Cost Concerns, Ferguson Rejects Feds' Initial Reform Plan

by | August 6, 2015

By Stephen Deere and Christine Byers

With the anniversary of Michael Brown's shooting only days away, the city appears to have rebuffed a Justice Department draft proposal to reform Ferguson's police and courts and requested more time to come up with a counteroffer.

Comments from one council member suggest that the distance between the two sides may have more to do with finances than anything else.

"We feel that what they are asking would financially ruin the city," Councilman Brian Fletcher said.

Fletcher declined to be specific about what he and others found unacceptable in the DOJ's proposal, but he said the council was unanimous in its agreement to request more time to come up with an alternative.

Other city officials downplayed the significance of the back-and-forth between the city and the federal agency, which, last March, denounced the practices of the city's court and police department in a widely publicized report.

"Let me just put this in perspective," said Councilman Wesley Bell. "The DOJ didn't expect us to accept their first proposal. This is just part of the negotiations. That's all. You want $200. You ask for $400."

Mayor James Knowles III declined to characterize the talks except to say that they were ongoing and that no member of the city council was authorized to speak on behalf of the city.

Knowles said no vote had been taken in regards to the proposal.

The city is already reeling from several financial setbacks because of the unrest that followed Brown's shooting and the grand jury decision that cleared then-Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson last year. Sales tax revenue is down. So is the amount the city collects from fines and fees. Ferguson has also had to pay out large severances to its former police chief and city manager, both of whom resigned shortly after the DOJ report was released.

Early this summer, the city council passed a budget with a $3.2 million deficit.

The cost of a federal monitor -- a typical feature of an agreement between a police department and the DOJ -- could run in excess of $1 million. Fletcher brought up that expense on Wednesday.

"If the DOJ wants a federal monitor, if they want to pay for it, that's something we can look at," he said.

A spokesman for the DOJ declined to comment on the negotiations.

Sam Walker, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and an expert on the Justice Department's negotiations, said that despite the comments from city officials, the Justice Department didn't usually give cities much room to negotiate this far along in the process.

"I don't think there is any reason to assume that this is like the sale of a home," Walker said.

Walker acknowledged that federal monitors were expensive but said they played a crucial role, advising the city and reporting on its progress.

"It's going to be expensive," Walker said. "They are going to be paying for all the things they didn't do, that they should have done."

In dual reports last March, the agency said that Wilson's shooting of Brown was justified but that the way the city's police department treated poorer residents, many of whom were minorities, was not.

The DOJ's report on the police department and municipal court said that the city had tolerated a culture of police brutality while pressuring the police chief and court officials to increase traffic enforcement and fees without regard to public safety.

Bell, who won election in April by promoting a plan to implement community policing in Ferguson, said the city had acted in good faith since the report was published.

"My approach is that we are not negotiating against the DOJ," he said. "We are negotiating with. Because we all want the same thing."

Bell said some reforms were already well underway. He pointed to the new municipal court judge, Donald McCullin, and police chief, Andre Anderson. Both men are black and were hired on a temporary basis to give the city time to find permanent replacements.

Bell touted Anderson's background in community policing, a loosely defined concept that emphasizes relationships with residents and strategies for dealing with crime. Anderson, a commander with the Glendale, Ariz., police department, has taken a leave of absence from his job there.

Bell said that the city had also hired a consultant to help implement community policing strategies and that the council had made it a top priority.

"Let me be clear, " Bell said. "Everyone is on board."

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