If Ferguson can’t justify its behavior, but can avoid change by pleading poverty, then what do we say to the guy who can’t figure out how to support his family without dealing drugs or robbing liquor stores?
In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in August 2014, the eyes of the country were on Ferguson, a city of 21,000 that is part of the St. Louis metropolitan area. Through the subsequent fall and winter, I discussed Ferguson several times on this blog, including “What your Fox-watching uncle doesn’t get about Ferguson” about the protests, and “Justice in Ferguson“, which covered the two reports the Justice Department issued last March.
The gist of what the Justice Department found was that in the specific case of Michael Brown, the evidence matched the account of the shooter, a white police officer, well enough that no charges were called for. (I felt good about my coverage here: I hadn’t claimed the officer was guilty of murder, but only that local authorities hadn’t performed a fair and credible investigation. The Justice Department’s investigation satisfied me.)
But Justice Department found that the more general complaints of Ferguson’s black community were justified: Policing in general was racially biased, and excessive force was commonly used, including inappropriate use of tasers and dogs. Complaints of excessive force were largely ignored, and officers were not disciplined. (As the Justice Department’s lawsuit — which we’ll get to in a few paragraphs — charges: “The supervisory review typically starts and ends with the presumption that the officer’s version of events is truthful and that the force was reasonable.”)
The Department’s report found that the root of the problem was even bigger than the police: Ferguson used its municipal court system to wring revenue out of the poor, creating an adversarial relationship between the police and the community. In short, the primary mission of the police was not to maintain order, but to find violations for which people could be fined. The city budget called for and depended on regular increases in revenue from fines.
Last month, Ferguson and the Justice Department worked out an agreement to reform Ferguson’s police and court practices without taking a lawsuit through the courts. But Tuesday, Ferguson’s City Council unanimously “approved” that agreement with seven unilateral amendments.
Those seven conditions on acceptance are that (i) the agreement contain no mandate for the payment of additional salary to police department or other city employees; (ii) the agreement contain no mandate for staffing in the Ferguson Jail; (iii) deadlines set forth in the agreement are extended; and (iv) the terms of the agreement shall not apply to other governmental entities or agencies who, in the future, take over services or operations currently being provided by the City of Ferguson; (v) a provision for local preference in contracting with consultants, contractors and third parties providing services under the agreement shall be included; (vi) project goals for minority and women participation in consulting, oversight and third party services shall be included; and (vii) the monitoring fee caps in the Side Agreement are changed to $1 million over the first five years with no more than $250,000 in any single year.
The arguments for these changes amount to: We can’t afford it. Ferguson can’t afford to raise police pay to attract better officers, particularly if the other reforms are going to reduce the city’s revenue. It can’t afford to monitor compliance with the agreement. It can’t afford to change as quickly as the Justice Department would like (and maybe stalling will allow it to strike a better deal with a Trump or Cruz administration). Revision (iv) gives the city an additional card to play: It could nullify the agreement by disbanding its police department and contracting out to some neighboring town or to St. Louis County. (Other nearby towns — a report by Arch City Defenders named Bel Ridge and Florissant in addition to Ferguson — also misuse their municipal court systems, and probably don’t like the precedent the Justice Department is setting in Ferguson. )
The Justice Department responded the next day by filing a lawsuit in federal court. The suit does not ask for specific remedies, but that the Court “Order the Defendant, its officers, agents, and employees to adopt and implement policies, procedures, and mechanisms that identify, correct, and prevent the unlawful conduct”. Presumably, the government has a court order in mind and thinks it has a good chance of getting it.
It’s possible to tell this story in a way that creates sympathy for Ferguson’s officials: Even if they now have the best of intentions, their budget is already in deficit, and that deficit will only get worse if the police and courts stop shaking down poor blacks for money. And if change also requires additional expenditure … well, where is that money going to come from?
On an abstract level, Ferguson raises issues similar to the ones in Flint: Once we segregate poor people into their own city or town, how does that municipality raise enough money to provide the basic services civilization demands? Where does the money come from to pump in clean water and truck out garbage? How are roads paved and buses run, so that people can get to their jobs? Who puts out fires? Who drives the ambulances and where do they take people for care? Who educates children and protects the innocent from crime?
If no external help is available, the answer is often to victimize the poor and voiceless. If somebody has to suffer, why not somebody the larger public doesn’t care about?
But we need to recognize where this financial-necessity logic leads: If Ferguson can’t justify its behavior, but can avoid change by pleading poverty, then what do we say to the guy who can’t figure out how to support his family without dealing drugs or robbing liquor stores?
The Justice Department may have no practical answer to the question of how Ferguson can afford to start policing its citizens fairly, with due regard to their rights as Americans. But nonetheless it must insist that the buck not stop there. If a Ferguson that respects the rights of its citizens is not financially viable and is doomed to bankruptcy, then the county and the state and even the nation have a problem. In truth, that problem already exists. The question is whether the rest of us will be allowed to hide it inside the borders of Ferguson and then look away.