Residents get a say on police overhaul agreement in Ferguson

FERGUSON, Mo. — Ferguson city leaders have spent months negotiating a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, a plan that calls for sweeping changes to police practices in the St.

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Louis suburb where 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot. Now, residents get their say.

The first of three public meetings on the proposed consent decree Tuesday night will be followed by comment sessions Saturday and Feb. 9, when the city council could approve the agreement.

If approved, the agreement would likely avert a civil rights lawsuit against Ferguson. The consent decree envisions a top-to-bottom reshaping of how police officers conduct stops, searches and arrests, use their firearms and respond to demonstrations. Ferguson officials also agreed to rewrite their municipal code to restrict the use of fines and jail time for petty violations.

The city's cost of implementing the changes will be "significant," spokesman Jeff Small said, but the amount has not been calculated. It will likely add to the financial difficulties of a municipality expected to make layoffs to help reduce a $2.8 million deficit. The deficit is due in part to costs such as legal fees, lost sales tax from businesses damaged in protests over the shooting, overtime for officers during the protests, and lost revenue from municipal court reforms.

Ferguson voters will consider two tax increases in April to help offset the deficit — one imposing an economic development sales tax, the other a property tax increase that would cost about $76 annually for a home worth $100,000.

The Justice Department investigated after the killing of Brown, who was black and unarmed, by white Ferguson officer Darren Wilson in 2014. A St. Louis County grand jury and the Justice Department declined to prosecute Wilson, who resigned in November 2014. But the shooting resulted in protests and promoted a wave of national scrutiny about police use of force and law enforcement's interactions with minorities.

In March, the Justice Department issued a report critical of Ferguson's police practices and a municipal court system that made money on the backs of the poor and minority residents. It found officers routinely used excessive force, issued petty citations and made baseless traffic stops in Ferguson, where about two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black but the vast majority of police officers are white.

Within days of the report, Ferguson's police chief, municipal judge and city manager resigned.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III and other city leaders began negotiating with the Justice Department in July. Recommendations were detailed in a 131-page proposed consent decree released Wednesday.

Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, wrote to Knowles that the agreement will "ensure that police and court services in Ferguson are provided in a manner that fully promotes public safety, respects the fundamental rights of all Ferguson residents, and makes policing in Ferguson safer and more rewarding for officers."

A statement from the city called the proposal "the best agreement that the city's representatives were able to obtain for the citizens of Ferguson."



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