The Department of Justice said Wednesday that it would sue the city of Ferguson, Missouri, to force the city to adopt police reforms negotiated with the federal government. This comes a day after the Ferguson City Council voted to change a proposed consent decree to reform the police and courts. The agreement was negotiated between city officials and the Department of Justice. Ferguson city officials said it would cost too much to implement. A Justice Department probe following the August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown found police and courts in Ferguson routinely engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination against African Americans. We speak to Jeffrey Mittman, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: The Department of Justice said Wednesday that it would sue the city of Ferguson, Missouri, to force the city to adopt police reforms negotiated with the federal government. This comes a day after the Ferguson City Council voted to change a proposed consent decree to reform the police and the courts. The agreement was negotiated between city officials and the Department of Justice, but Ferguson city officials now say it would cost too much to implement.
AMY GOODMAN: A Justice Department probe following the August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown found police and courts in Ferguson routinely engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination against African Americans. The shooting sparked nationwide protests.
To find out more about the Justice Department civil rights lawsuit, we’re joined now by Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, of Missouri.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Explain what this lawsuit is all about. What did the Ferguson City Council do this week? And how did Loretta Lynch, the attorney general, respond?
JEFFREY MITTMAN: Certainly. Good morning.
So what happened is, for many months, in private, the Department of Justice negotiated with the Ferguson city leaders an agreement whereby they could reform their courts and their police practices. As we know, this is essential, given the long history of predatory practices, which really preyed on and negatively impacted the African-American community. So there’s this long period of private negotiation, and then the consent decree, the result of those negotiations, is made public.
Rather than vote to enter into the decree to start making the changes that are necessary, at its Tuesday night meeting what the Ferguson City Council did is they unilaterally added individual provisions which limited what the agreement would do, and essentially said to the Department of Justice, "Well, we’ll work with you, if you do these things that really undermine the agreement." Rightly, then, the Department of Justice said, "All right. If you’re not going to play ball with us, we will go to our other alternative, which is to sue you in federal court."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Jeffrey Mittman, is it true that what they said on—when they rejected the agreement or said further negotiations were necessary, Ferguson city officials said it was too expensive to implement?
JEFFREY MITTMAN: You know, here’s a thing that’s problematic. Some of the provisions that are contained in the consent decree cover expenses that would have already been necessary to running of the Ferguson city police department. So, we know there’s all sorts of ways you can cook the books or you can make allegations about what’s included or what’s not.
What’s important to remember is the consent decree was the result of negotiations between Ferguson and the Department of Justice. For the City Council at the last minute to say, "Oh, this would have been too expensive," you know, they should have worked that out during negotiations. You can’t have an agreement, make it public, and then, at the last minute, add in provisions that really undercut the agreement, and say that that’s the fault of the Department of Justice.
The underlying issue to remember is that there—for so many years, there were practices by Ferguson, by the police department, that targeted the African-American community, that were illegal and unconstitutional. That’s what needs to be changed.
AMY GOODMAN: And those practices were, very quickly?
JEFFREY MITTMAN: Those practices were, for example, making up essentially fake crimes or fake ordinances that would then be used to target African Americans, single them out for harassment, impose fines, use the courts to essentially turn an impoverished community into a piggybank to run municipal practices. The Department of Justice report on these practices is really scathing and really incredibly frightening to lay out how into the 21st century a city was really running unconstitutional, illegal and discriminatory practices. The Department of Justice report is really worth reading.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Attorney General Loretta Lynch yesterday.
ATTORNEY GENERAL LORETTA LYNCH: There is no price for constitutional policing. The citizens and the residents of Ferguson deserve what every American is guaranteed under the Constitution—the right to be free from excessive force, from unconstitutional stops, from unconstitutional arrests and from a fine system that was literally breaking their backs.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Jeffrey Mittman, what happens now?
JEFFREY MITTMAN: So what happens now is the Department of Justice moved very quickly. They have now sued the city of Ferguson in federal court. The city has some options. They can engage in full-scale warfare and try to fight these allegations, which I think we all know are very well-founded. They will most likely lose in federal court. Again, we can never be sure, but that seems to be the likely outcome. So it will then be spent—set with attorneys’ fees for fighting the losing battle and then the expense of implementing the resulting requirements. Alternatively, they can take a long, hard look at their prior practices, they can take a long, hard look at this negotiated agreement, and they can agree to do the right thing. I think that’s what the Department of Justice is hoping.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. Jeffrey Mittman, thanks so much for being with us, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, speaking to us from St. Louis.