Ferguson Mayor: 'There Was No Agreement' With The Justice Department | St. Louis Public Radio

Ferguson Mayor: 'There Was No Agreement' With The Justice Department

Feb 12, 2016
Originally published on February 16, 2016 1:55 am

The Justice Department slapped the city of Ferguson, Mo., with a civil rights lawsuit this week after the City Council voted to change a proposed settlement agreement to reform the police and courts.

When Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the suit on Wednesday, she said Ferguson police disproportionately targeted black people for traffic stops, use of force and jail sentences.

"These violations were not only egregious, they were routine," Lynch said. "They were encouraged by the city in the interest of raising revenue. They were driven at least in part by racial bias, and they occurred disproportionately against African-American residents of Ferguson. And they were profoundly and fundamentally unconstitutional."

The Justice Department investigation into the city came after a white police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles told All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro that the Justice Department refused to negotiate with the city further after Ferguson presented a comprehensive cost analysis on the terms of the settlement. The mayor also said the city never came to a final agreement with the Justice Department.


Interview Highlights

On why the City Council proposed changes after agreeing to the deal

Trust me, we brought many, many issues to the table during these negotiations, not least of which was the issue of cost and how much it would take for the city of Ferguson to comply with all of these points that were contained in the report.

By the time our staff had a comprehensive cost analysis done on this, we did not have an opportunity to go back and have a negotiation with the Department of Justice. They did not want to have further negotiations. They wanted us to either accept it or decline it.

On the confusion over the settlement agreement

Let me be very clear about this. There was no agreement. The only agreement was that we would take it before the people, that we would take it before the entire council for consideration. Now the Department of Justice asked us to sign an agreement before we took it public and we refused.

On the Justice Department's claim that unconstitutional policing practices were used to generate revenue

Well if [Attorney General Loretta Lynch] forces us to raise our expenses, I mean, that would force us to go find new revenue. The point is our revenues have fallen.

Obviously, we don't pull over people at the rate we used to pull people over. We don't issue tickets like we used to issue tickets. Property values have fallen. Revenues from sales tax has fallen.

So she's complaining about the way we used to generate revenue, which we don't anymore, but now wants to tack on a huge amount of expenses to us. I mean, that's completely counterproductive.

On whether Ferguson and the Justice Department perceive different realities about a pattern and practice of discrimination

I don't know if that would be a proper characterization of this because of everything that started in April of 2014. The city of Ferguson began looking at both its core practices and its police practices, and immediately, we began changing things in our courts, which we felt were onerous, which were probably burdensome on the people who are going through our court system.

We started removing fines and fees from our court systems in September of 2014; that's long before the March 2015 report from the Department of Justice. We also began changing the way we do things in our police department once these things came to light.

I think it's very important to recognize that the city of Ferguson has taken an affirmative approach to ensuring that those things which the Department of Justice alleges does not occur in Ferguson going forward.

On whether Ferguson is putting a dollar amount on constitutional rights

We don't believe the Department of Justice should tell us how much we have to pay our city staff. I don't know anywhere in the Constitution of the United States where it says in order to have a constitutional policing police department, you must be paid among the highest in the area.

The issue was raised in the negotiations with the Department of Justice. But ultimately it's something that they refused to relent on.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to talk now with the mayor of Ferguson, Mo. The U.S. Department of Justice slapped his city with a civil rights lawsuit this week. When Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced this suit on Wednesday, she said the city targeted black people in traffic stops, use of force and jail sentences.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LORETTA LYNCH: These violations were not only egregious, they were routine. They were encouraged by the city in the interest of raising revenue. They were driven at least in part by racial bias, and they occurred disproportionately against African-American residents of Ferguson, and they were profoundly and fundamentally unconstitutional.

SHAPIRO: Of course, Ferguson is the city where a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014. That sparked a Justice Department investigation which led to a settlement agreement. The city council unanimously decided to change the terms of that agreement, and the Justice Department responded with this lawsuit.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles, welcome to the program.

JAMES KNOWLES: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: You and your team sat at the negotiating table with the Justice Department for seven months to work out the settlement agreement. If there were things you wanted to change, why not bring it up in the negotiations rather than make the changes unilaterally after you agreed to the deal?

KNOWLES: Trust me, we brought many, many issues to the table during these negotiations, not least of which was the issue of cost and how much it would take for the city of Ferguson to comply with all of these points that were contained in the report. By the time our staff had a comprehensive cost analysis done on this, we did not have an opportunity to go back and have a negotiation with the Department of Justice. They did not want to have further negotiation. They wanted us to either accept it or decline it.

SHAPIRO: But Mayor Knowles, anyone who's been in a negotiation knows, once you reach an agreement, particularly after seven months of talks...

KNOWLES: But there was no agreement. Let me be very clear about this. There was no agreement. The only agreement was that we would take it before the people, that we would take it before the entire council for consideration. Now, the Department of Justice asked us to sign an agreement before we took it public, and we refused.

SHAPIRO: You say that money is the problem, but, as we heard from the attorney general, money is part of what drove the police force to engage in some of these abusive practices in the first place. She says they were encouraged by the city in the interest of raising revenue. Don't you risk falling back into the same patterns here?

KNOWLES: Well, if she forces us to raise our expenses, I mean, that would force us to go find new revenue. The point is, our revenues have fallen. Obviously, we don't pull over people at the rate we used to pull people over. We don't issue tickets like we used to issue tickets. Property values have fallen, revenues from sales tax has fallen. So she's complaining that we - about the way we used to generate revenue, which we don't anymore, but now wants to tack on a huge amount of expenses to us. I mean, that's completely counterproductive.

SHAPIRO: You say we don't pull over or issue tickets like we used to as though that is a sacrifice, but the way you used to pull people over and issue tickets was a blatant infringement of constitutional rights.

KNOWLES: That is what the Department of Justice alleges.

SHAPIRO: Do you disagree with it?

KNOWLES: Has it happened in the past? It may have.

SHAPIRO: You're not even willing to say it certainly has, just, it may have.

KNOWLES: I have not been presented with a case from the Department of Justice nor have we been able to identify specific instances in which this has occurred.

SHAPIRO: You know, what I get from this conversation is that even after seven months of intense talks with the U.S. Department of Justice and the city of Ferguson, these two parties perceive completely different realities.

KNOWLES: I don't know if that would be a proper characterization of this because everything started in April of 2014. The city of Ferguson began looking at both its core practices and its police practices. Immediately, we began changing things in our courts which we felt were onerous which were probably burdensome on people who were going through our court system. We started removing fines and fees from our court systems in September of 2014. That's long before the March 2015 report from the Department of Justice. We also began changing the way we do things in our police department once these things came to light. I think it's very important to recognize that the city of Ferguson has taken an affirmative approach to ensuring that those things which the Department of Justice alleges does not occur in Ferguson going forward.

SHAPIRO: But ultimately, I think the Justice Department is accusing you of putting a dollar amount on fundamental Constitutional rights - that if it's too expensive, you won't provide those basic rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

KNOWLES: Look, the amendments that we proposed says that we're going to have African-American hiring goals on our vendors. I don't think that has anything to do with constitutional policing.

SHAPIRO: That was one of seven amendments.

KNOWLES: And I'm going through them for you. So I mean, we have that one. We don't believe the Department of Justice should tell us how much we have to pay our city staff.

SHAPIRO: That seems like a very good argument to make in negotiations with the Department of Justice.

KNOWLES: And the issue was raised in the negotiations with the Department of Justice, but ultimately, I mean, it's something that they refused to relent on.

SHAPIRO: Is it possible that having rejected this agreement and now being hit with the lawsuit, it will ultimately cost the city more in the long-run than it would've if you had just agreed to the terms of the deal worked out over seven months?

KNOWLES: No, actually, we believe that the court costs associated with fighting this would actually be significantly less than complying with the terms of the agreement as they presented it to us.

SHAPIRO: And so is your plan now to simply fight this lawsuit and hope for the best?

KNOWLES: Our plan is to continue to move forward with all of these reforms, which we, by the way, have started, again, long before the conversation started with the Department of Justice. We already have body cameras on all of our officers as per the agreement. We already have a civilian review board being implemented in our city. There's a tremendous amount of oversight in training which we have already agreed to which we've already begun the implementation of all of these things you will see that ensure constitutional policing in the city of Ferguson. We are just not going to provide these significant raises for our officers.

SHAPIRO: James Knowles is the mayor of Ferguson, Mo.

Mayor Knowles, thanks for talking with us.

KNOWLES: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And we asked the Department of Justice about the mayor's statement the Justice did not want to wait for the city's cost analysis. The DOJ shared a letter it sent to the mayor and city council which says in part, as has long been established under law, constitutional protection cannot be denied on the grounds of cost. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.