The next steps in the Ferguson DOJ case

The next steps in the Ferguson DOJ case

Changes are ahead for the city of Ferguson.

This week, the Department of Justice will formally release its report regarding the investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. That report will outline the DOJ findings that Ferguson police engaged in racially biased enforcement and make recommendations about changes.

Now, Ferguson leaders will have some choices about what to do next.

First, they could agree to the recommended changes in a "consent decree." That formalizes their agreement in federal court with the Department of Justice. The "consent decree" gives federal authorities oversight as changes are implemented.

"When a city wants to work with the Department of Justice, they negotiate based on the Department of Justice's investigation," explained Marcia McCormick, a professor of law at St. Louis University. "And together they'll come to an agreement on what new policies should be put into effect."

Ferguson police could also choose not to comply with the recommendations, risking a lawsuit from the Department of Justice.

Several other cities have been the subject of a DOJ investigation, including Seattle, Cincinnati, and Portland. McCormick said most cities choose to comply with federal officials.

"It's become much more common in the last five years, she said. "And the vast majority of them -- the departments -- enter into agreements with the DOJ. In a few of them, I think three or four, the departments have resisted doing that and the DOJ has filed lawsuits."

Either option will be lengthy and costly, said former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch.

"If you decide to comply, and agree with the Department of Justice, it's going to cost you millions. If you decide to fight it and say, 'We're not going to do these things,' it's probably going to cost you millions. So there's really no quick fix or easy solution," he said.

Fitch now serves as an assessor for a national police department accreditation team. He said he assessed two agencies that were under federal consent decrees: Prince George's County, Maryland and Cincinnati, Ohio.

He said the expenses for cities under this arrangement add up quickly. Departments make policy changes, staffing changes, and do all of that under the watchful eye of a federal monitoring team which include attorneys and academics. Its a multi-year process, Fitch said, which includes thousands of billable hours.

"Sometimes these lists are very lengthy and very costly to a city," he said. "I questioned from day one of this, when this announcement was made that the DOJ was going to do this investigation, whether or not Ferguson will be able to afford these reforms."

Ferguson leaders are likely facing tough choices.

"They may have to go back to the residents and ask for a tax increase, or they may have to outsource their police services," Fitch said.

The former chief said he saw another, more immediate impact on a police department while working in Ohio.

"When I was in Cincinnati, they had a huge uptick in crime after the DOJ announced their investigation, because -- basically -- the police department shut down and they stopped working," he said. "They stopped doing proactive things. They had to say to themselves, 'Do I really need to pull over this car, and then take the chance that I'm going to get tagged with some sort of discriminatory practice that the DOJ will not like?'"

"It's just as easy for them to let them go," he continued. "Don't even bother with it. Just respond to your radio calls and do the very minimum you have to do. That's what we've seen in these situations."

However, Fitch added, it's not all bad.

"There have been plenty of positive outcomes: [like] new policy the agency probably should done anyway," he said. "From a community standpoint, I will tell you that the community members I've talked to in Cincinnati and In Prince George's County Maryland, all said it was a very positive experience for the community."

"This is really about changing the policies, and changing the way the city goes about policing. It's not about damages," added McCormick.

"This is preventative. [Its' DOJ saying] 'We've seen this history of potential violations of federal law, we need to change the way that you do things so that you don't continue to violate the Constitution and federal law in the way that you enforce federal law."


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