Reform In Ferguson Is Just Barely Getting Started

Jesse Jackson visits as protests continue

Now that Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson has resigned, is the federal government going to get off the city’s case?

Not hardly. Jackson’s resignation — just like the resignation of the city’s municipal judge, and of three city employees who were caught sending racist emails — might be necessary moves for the city to make. But the Department of Justice spent months investigating deep, systemic problems with the criminal justice system in Ferguson, and it’s not going to walk away just because a few individuals resigned.

The Department of Justice has gone through this sort of thing before: after investigating a local police department, they enter an agreement with the department that requires reforms and federal oversight until the problems are fixed. But that process takes years, a lot of money, and, often, a lot of resources to do paperwork. It’s placed a burden even on large police departments like the Los Angeles Police Department — and could easily be more than Ferguson can handle. There are alternatives to working with the DOJ to make reforms, but they don’t look good for the city, either.

None of the potential plans of action will be painless for the city. But at this point, fixing the relationship between police and residents in Ferguson, and rebuilding trust in the criminal-justice system, depends on the city making the reforms the DOJ suggests. Without cooperation, if not enthusiasm, from local government and police, reform can’t happen. And refusing to get on board with reform isn’t necessarily going to cost Ferguson any less money or time. So the question is what the city of Ferguson can do to make itself acceptable to its citizens again.

Plan A: a consent decree that forces federal oversight of the department for several years

Most of the time, after investigations like this, the federal government and the local police force enter into an agreement called a consent decree, which is enforced by a federal judge. The consent decree says that the department is going to be monitored by the federal government for a while, and lays out reforms the department needs to make before it can be trusted to look after itself again.

In the case of Ferguson, since the DOJ also found constitutional violations in the city’s municipal court system, the consent decree is likely to include it, as well. The section of the DOJ’s Ferguson report that lists recommendations for reforming the police and courts is likely a good guess of what the feds would require of the city.

The consent decree is usually the result of negotiations between the local police force and the DOJ, but make no mistake: the federal government has the upper hand in setting consent decrees down, because it can hold the threat of a lawsuit over the local government’s head.

The legal structure’s been in place since the mid-1990s, when Congress passed a law in the wake of the Rodney King riots giving the DOJ the ability to keep an eye on misbehaving local police departments. As of fall 2014, the DOJ was involved in consent decrees with about 20 agencies — including other departments that have gotten national attention for use-of-force problems, like Albuquerque and Cleveland.

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Source: | Dara Lind

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