Tonight while everybody is focused on the New Hampshire primaries, the City Council of Ferguson, Missouri, will be voting whether to accept an agreement with the Department of Justice designed to eliminate the abusive and predatory practices of the town's police and court system.
Readers may recall that while the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown was cleared by both a grand jury and a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation, the DOJ nevertheless took a deep look at the city's operations and found serious civil rights abuses. The town of 21,000 in northern St. Louis County clearly wasn't getting enough tax revenue to support its operations, so it resorted to preying on its citizenry with fees and fines, dragging its poor residents into an arcane court system designed to wring them dry.
The DOJ is demanding Ferguson change its ways or face a federal civil rights lawsuit. City leaders have agreed—in theory—but today is the day they decide whether they will actually accept the DOJ's plan.
And what a plan it is. The DOJ's demands of the City of Ferguson fill up 127 pages of a consent decree. The agreement touches on nearly every aspect of law enforcement and court operations in the city, calling for bias-free training, making sure officers don't engage in unconstitutional stops and searches, making sure officers respect the First Amendment rights of citizens to observe and record police behavior without threatening to arrest them, updating use of force policies, implementing body cameras, and repealing ordinances that have been used to harass (and even imprison) citizens over minor infractions.
And it is not a cheap plan, which is a bit awkward for Ferguson. Ferguson not only suffered quite a bit of damage from unrest there that needed to be repaired (giving it another hit in tax revenue); Missouri also implemented legislation capping how much of a city's budget can be drawn from traffic citations. As such, the city is already operating at a deficit ($2.8 million, according to the Associated Press). Ferguson officials have calculated that implementing this massive plan could cost up to $3.7 million the first year and up to $3 million in the second and third years.
What could account for such a huge expense? It's not just the training and the price of the DOJ monitor to make sure the plan is being implemented. Buried in the consent agreement, down on page 65, are a bunch of demands of the city's recruitment plan. The very first item requires "that the City will offer salaries that will place [Ferguson Police Department] among the most competitive similarly sized agencies in St. Louis county."
Yes, that's right: The DOJ is demanding control over pay levels for police officers. Mayor James Knowles III says he is interpreting that demand to mean that police salaries be among the top 25 percent among similar cities. That would mean an average pay and benefits increase of $14,600 annually for its 50 or so police officers. That's approaching $750,000 a year, and obviously it would have to be a permanent change. And that's not all: There are parts of this deal with the Department of Justice that read like something that would be part of police contract negotiations, like demanding that officers have access to fitness facilities operated by the city free of charge and access to special identity fraud protection services (though it does not demand this benefit be free).
The result, Knowles warns, is that the city may have to cut non-police jobs in order to pay for this increase, given the city's $14.5 million annual budget.
Incidentally, this approach to public safety funding is what bankrupted San Bernardino. Its city charter required it to pay its police and fire employees based on an average wage paid to employees in nearby communities of similar sizes. The problem was that San Bernardino is the poorest of these cities and ultimately couldn't sustain these costs. When the city couldn't convince citizens to vote to change the city's charter, it was left having to dump its fire department entirely to contract with the county.
So just to make it clear, the city stands accused of having an abusive law enforcement agency that violates the rights of its citizenry in order to fund itself and its court employees, and the correction being imposed by the Department of Justice is to force the city to have to find sources of even more money to fork over to the very officers that have been abusing residents.
You can't say I didn't warn you. The Department of Justice has its own ways of contributing to a terrible police and prosecutorial culture. And as we can see, they have ways of making it even more expensive.