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Justice Department sues city of Ferguson to push police reform

Conducting two investigations, the DOJ uncovered a pattern of civil rights violations within the Ferguson Police Department at the hands of its police and court system, Vice News reports.

But it was the August, 2014 killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer that gained Ferguson national attention. A grand jury declined to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, and as a result, he wasn’t prosecuted. Wilson resigned three months after the shooting.

On the heels of a report filed by the DOJ and months of negotiations, the DOJ and the city agreed to a deal in January that would mandate changes to the city’s policing practices and overhaul its municipal court system. However, on Tuesday, the City Council voted to revise the agreement, known as a consent decree. That prompted the government to sue.

The lawsuit alleges that the “ongoing and pervasive” violations happen because the city uses law enforcement to generate revenue, The Washington Post reports.

This prompted an impassioned plea for reform by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, at a news conference Wednesday.

“Residents of Ferguson have suffered the deprivation of their constitutional rights — the rights guaranteed to all Americans — for decades,” she said. “They have waited decades for justice. They should not be forced to wait any longer.”

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. It alleges that the Ferguson Police Department and municipal courts engage in unconstitutional “patterns and practices” by using force without legal justification and “engaging in racially discriminatory law enforcement conduct,” the Post reports.

According to federal officials, the civil rights violations have occurred due to the city’s failure to properly train and supervise law enforcement officers, which is also what the DOJ found in its’ 2014 investigation into Ferguson’s police force.

The city focuses on revenue, the DOJ alleges, and that’s why city officials have never updated local politics in an effort to try and “decrease or eliminate police misconduct, including discriminatory policing, unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests, and the use of unreasonable force,” the Post reports.

A spokesman for the city told CNN that officials will not comment on the DOJ’s lawsuit until Thursday.

Ferguson officials haven’t seen the lawsuit, said city spokesman Jeff Small.

The negotiations to reform the city’s police department and municipal court system stems from an investigation conducted by the DOJ last year. The investigation found that the Ferguson Police Department discriminated against African-Americans, disproportionately targeting them for traffic stops, use of force, and jail sentences, CNN reports.

Not only were the violations egregious, they were routine, Lynch said at the press conference.

“They were driven, at least in part, by racial bias and they occurred disproportionately against African-American residents of Ferguson.”

But Ferguson city officials argue that their vote wasn’t a rejection of the deal with the DOJ. Instead, it was an effort to change some of the terms due to worries about costs.

Lynch said the council knew what it was doing when it voted against the agreement that was approved by the city’s own negotiators.

“The city was well aware that by deciding not to accept it, they were choosing litigation,” she said. “This was their choice.”

At a news conference, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said that the reforms must be affordable and attainable, Reuters reports.

“It serves no one’s purpose for us to fail,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Ferguson city council voted to accept the agreement, but only if the city didn’t have to increase police officers’ pay and police staffing level. The council also said it wants more time to comply with the other terms.

It’s only been during the last two weeks that the city has been able to analyze the costs of implementing the agreement, Knowles said.

The city has already enacted some reforms, having added community policing and a civilian review board that oversees police, Knowles and city council members said.

A recent analysis placed the cost of the reforms detailed in the agreement at about $4 million, per Vice News.

Some advocates warn that entering into litigation with the DOJ could cost the city more than it would to implement the changes.

There is no cheap or easy way to reform police practices such as those conducted by Ferguson police, noted Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Lynch said that the DOJ plans “to aggressively prosecute this case and I have no doubt that we will prevail.”

Court documents say that the Sheriff’s Office of Alamance County, North Carolina, and the Colorado City, Arizona, police department are also in litigation with the DOJ.

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