By Stephen Deere
The U.S. Department of Justice accused Ferguson of numerous constitutional violations in a 56-page lawsuit filed Wednesday, saying that the City Council had in fact rejected a proposed agreement the night before _ despite Ferguson officials repeated claims to the contrary.
At a meeting on Tuesday, the Ferguson City Council approved a revised version of a consent decree it had worked out with the department, but one revision eliminated the so-called "poison pill" clause that made the decree apply to any other agency providing policing in Ferguson.
That change would have allowed Ferguson to circumvent most of the decree by disbanding its police department.
At a news conference Wednesday, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III insisted that the City Council had "unanimously voted in favor of the most expansive and comprehensive consent decree issued to date."
Two hours later, U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch also stood before reporters 800 miles away at the department's headquarters in Washington, taking issue with Knowles' description.
"The City Council rejected the consent decree approved by their own negotiators," she said. "Their decision leaves us no further choice."
Lynch referenced the Justice Department investigation that began shortly after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, which "uncovered a community in distress, in which residents felt under assault by their own police force."
She said the police department's violations were expansive, deliberate, egregious and routine.
The lawsuit mirrors much of what is in a 105-page report that the Justice Department published in March. The report details patterns in the police department of illegal stops, searches, and arrests driven partly by racial bias
The violations were encouraged by city leaders in the interest of raising revenue, Lynch said.
Lynch said the department and Ferguson spent 26 weeks in painstaking negotiations reviewing every detail of the consent decree, a 131-page document with hundreds of requirements.
The city released the decree nearly two weeks ago, asking the public to review it and offer their thoughts at three public hearings.
In her remarks on Wednesday, Lynch said Ferguson residents had waited decades for justice and "should not be forced to wait any longer."
But at the public hearings on the decree, residents were divided. Some believed the decree would bankrupt Ferguson, forcing it to dissolve.
"I would rather lose our city by fighting for it in court, than lose it by giving in to the DOJ's crushing demands," said Susan Ankenbrand, who moved to Ferguson 41 years ago, partly because she wanted to live in a diverse community.
At the news conference, Knowles said such comments influenced the city's decision.
"There is no reason to enter into an agreement that we know we cannot live up to," he said.
But many black residents and activists believed the decree was their best chance at justice and often described instances of police harassment.
"The paperwork is prepared," protester Debra Kennedy warned at Tuesday's meeting. "They are not playing with you all."
After the lawsuit was announced, Kennedy said, "What did I tell you? What did I tell the council? ... I wish could have been at that press conference where Knowles taunted the DOJ and practically begged them to sue him."
At a public hearing on Saturday, Finance Director Jeffrey Blume said the decree could cost the city $2.1 million to $3.7 million in the first year, and more $10 million over three years. But much of that estimate was based on a clause in the agreement that required police officers' pay to be among the "most competitive" with similarly sized cities.
The Justice Department has not offered an explanation of how they understand the provision.
Blume said the clause would mandate 25 percent raises for police officers, possibly triggering raises for other employees.
Those statements sparked speculation that Ferguson was inflating the figures and positioning itself to vote the decree down, as well as questions about Blume's motivations given that he was mentioned in the March report 19 times.
In one instance, the report cites a 2010 email Blume wrote the police chief stating, "unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. What are your thoughts? Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it's not an insignificant issue."
The city had reached the outlines of an agreement with the Justice Department in December. Asked why Ferguson had not compiled cost estimates sooner and provided them to the public when it released the decree, Knowles said, "We can conceptually agree to a lot of things. That doesn't mean there's a price tag."
Ferguson Attorney Dan K. Webb said on Saturday that a lawsuit would last three to four years, and estimated legal expenses would be $4 million to $8 million.
"The assessment is, as the agreement currently stands, it will cost more to implement the agreement than it would be to fight it in a lawsuit," Knowles said Wednesday.
The City Council enacted some municipal court reforms contained in the decree, as a sign of good faith, before voting to send the agreement back to the Justice Department with revisions.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon applauded those actions, despite the lawsuit.
"I served as attorney general of this state for 16 years," Nixon told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I'm extremely familiar with the process and the myriad of issues in which federal consent decrees are attempted. Philosophically, I've never been a huge fan of them."
Nixon said the court-ordered agreements take away the flexibility to solve problems quickly.
"The methodology, whether it's a consent decree or a lawsuit, is not nearly as important as the subject, and what you're doing to solve problems," he said.
But the council also met in closed session before opening the meeting Tuesday night to the public, and to some, it was clear that in the closed meeting, the council scripted the discussion for the open meeting.
Within minutes of publicly approving a revised version of the decree, the city's public relations staff began handing out news releases announcing the decision.
The council also voted unanimously to appoint Laverne Mitchom, a black, to a council seat vacated when Councilman Brian Fletcher, a former Ferguson mayor, died of a heart attack. Two weeks earlier, in a heated discussion, the council was split along racial lines about whether to appoint Mitchom.
"There was clearly an agreement already in place about how the proceedings would play out and what the final agreement would be," said the Rev. Starsky Wilson, a former co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, which was formed to study the economic and social conditions highlighted by months of protests following Brown's death.
"When they are making critical decisions in closed session, when there's clearly an open meeting where they should be discussing these items, it raises questions about inclusive democracy and transparency for elected officials," Wilson said.
The attempt to remove the so-called "poison pill" clause, was either foolish or deceitful, he said.
"Quite frankly, at this point, I hope and look forward to the Department of Justice bringing the full weight of civil rights implementation on the city of Ferguson if this is how the leaders will care for the constitutional rights of the people," Wilson said.
Many Ferguson Commission recommendations released last year were also included in the decree. As for the City Council's insistence that it had approved the decree, Wilson said, "They can say that. But we know what they have done."
Jeff Rainford, former chief of staff for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, said the standoff between the city and Justice Department could have boarder implications for the region, but now that circumstances have reached this point, a solution is going to be complicated.
Ferguson residents deserve a police department of which they are not afraid, he said, but the proposed consent decree could place a great financial burden on the very people it is supposed to help.
"The majority of the citizens who are going to pay for this are African American ... the people's whose rights were supposedly violated," Rainford said.
(Staffers David Hunn and Chuck Raasch contributed to this report.)
(c)2016 St. Louis Post-Dispatch