US Justice Department sues the City of Ferguson to force policing reform

Washington: The Department of Justice filed a 56-page civil lawsuit against the City of Ferguson, Missouri, alleging that, 18 months after the police shooting of Michael Brown, the city's police and court system continue to violate black residents' civil rights.

The suit -- a contentious next-step in what has been a months-long negotiation process between federal and city officials over potential reforms -- was filed on Wednesday and it says these "ongoing and pervasive" violations come from the city's use of law enforcement to generate revenue.

"Residents of Ferguson have suffered the deprivation of their constitutional rights -- the rights guaranteed to all Americans -- for decades," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a news conference on Wednesday in which she was impassioned as she spoke about the urgent need for reform in Ferguson. "They have waited decades for justice. They should not be forced to wait any longer."

The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, alleges that Ferguson's police department and municipal courts engage in an unconstitutional "patterns and practices" of using force without legal justification and "engaging in racially discriminatory law enforcement conduct".

Federal officials say the civil rights violations stem from the city's failure to properly train and supervise its law enforcement officers, echoing the findings of the 2014 Justice Department investigation into Ferguson's police force.


The Justice Department bluntly states in the suit that Ferguson's focus on revenue is the reason the city's officials have never changed politics to try and "decrease or eliminate police misconduct, including discriminatory policing, unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests, and the use of unreasonable force".

While the suit acknowledges that the city has made some reforms since the Justice Department conducted its investigation, it also states that they are insufficient to both eliminate the practices and prevent them from happening in the future.

The lawsuit comes one day after city officials requested several changes to a tentative agreement reached by city and federal negotiators following the Justice Department's investigation into the city's police and court practices -- which concluded that the city engaged in practices that were racially discriminatory and violated residents' civil rights.

"Our investigation found that Ferguson's policing and municipal court practices violate the Constitution, erode trust and undermine public safety," said Vanita Gupta, the DOJ's principal deputy assistant attorney general.

The negotiations stem from the federal investigation into the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man whose death prompted nationwide protests, as well as a parallel investigation into the city police force's "patterns and practices". The Ferguson probe is one of more than two dozen such investigations into police departments conducted by the Justice Department under the Obama Administration, and the city joins at least two other police agencies currently in litigation.

The NAACP Legal Defence Fund, one of several civil rights groups that has closely followed the investigation into Ferguson, had called on the city to approve the deal, arguing that worries about funding have long been cited as arguments against civil rights changes.

"We reject this argument out of hand as an affront to democracy," Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP's Legal Defence and Educational Fund, said in a statement. She added: "The Ferguson City Council must approve the proposed consent decree and work diligently and immediately to acquire the necessary funds to protect the lives and civil rights of all its residents, regardless of race."

Washington Post