Nearly a month ago, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report on the Ferguson Police Department. The federal Civil Rights Division found the city's "law enforcement practices were shaped by the city's focus on revenue rather than on public safety needs," causing a pattern of stops and arrests that violated the constitutional rights of the city's majority black population.
The report fueled activists' demands that the Ferguson Police Department be disbanded. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder even weighed in, telling reporters that he would break up the department if necessary.
Is that even possible? What are the range of alternatives facing Ferguson?
Over the years, several St. Louis County cities have dissolved their police departments and contracted with another for service.
Typically, a city enters into a contract with the St. Louis County Police Department. That happened in Dellwood, Uplands Park, Fenton and Wildwood. Smaller cities have also contracted with larger ones for police service, such as Oakland contracting with Kirkwood and Greendale contracting with Normandy.
But contracting requires action by a governing body. In Dellwood, for instance, the city council voted to abolish its police department and contract with St. Louis County. Because the Ferguson Police Department is baked into the city’s charter, a citywide vote might be required to dissolve it.
While residents could gather the signatures to place the dissolution of the police department on the ballot, the easier route may be through the city council moving a ballot item forward. Ferguson officials, though, don't seem much inclined to do that.
“We’ll always make the decision that’s best for the city, both financially and for the future of the city,” said Ferguson Mayor James Knowles in March. “But right now where we’re seeing going forward, absolutely [we will] keep the police department.”
It’s not just Knowles, though. St. Louis Public Radio talked with all eight candidates running for three open city council seats. None of them supports getting rid of Ferguson’s Police Department, preferring instead to make internal changes.
“All of these different north county municipalities are operating under the same way,” said Lee Smith, a candidate for Ferguson’s 3rd ward seat. “And that’s what I was saying when you were talking about disbanding the police department and then contracting to the other areas. We have the same issue. There’s no cultural or policy change in the police operations.”
Beyond authorizing their creation, Missouri law has little to no authority over municipal police departments. There are basic standards for individual police officers, which are enforced by the Missouri Department of Public Safety and the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, but nothing comparable for departments.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol can provide temporary support to local departments, as it did in Kirkwood in 2008 so police officers could mourn two of their own killed in a mass shooting at City Hall and as it did during the protests in Ferguson. But state law has no provision to allow the patrol to take over police operations in a city.
Holder created quite a stir when he told a press pool that he was prepared to dismantle the Ferguson police force “if that’s what’s necessary.”
State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, suggested as much, too, when she said that the Department of Justice might be able to dissolve Ferguson’s Police Department by fiat. “It may not be up to the elected people; it may be up to the Department of Justice,” she said in March. “If they do not follow the guidelines and some of the ideas expressed by the DOJ, it won’t be up to them.”
Neither Knowles nor St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger share that opinion. When asked last month about whether the federal government could swoop in and dissolve a local police department, Stenger replied: “It is my understanding that the federal government does not have authority to do that.”
“I don’t know the exact inner workings in Ferguson,” Stenger said. "But it would be a matter of Ferguson government – whether it be council or whether it be by a vote of the people."
Experts on civil rights investigations say any move by the federal government is a long way off. No specific federal statute gives the Justice Department permission to dismantle a police department by fiat, said Margo Schlanger, the director of the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse at the University of Michigan law school. Any change in the way the Ferguson police operate will come through the settlement of the civil rights claims outlined in the March 4 report.
Oversight agreements reached as part of a settlement generally start with a monitor who ensures a police department is making the changes it negotiated with federal officials, Schlanger said. Ferguson’s political leaders could agree to dissolve the police department as part of the settlement, but that seems unlikely given current sentiment. Municipal officers could decide later that compliance with the policy changes is too expensive.
Ferguson can contest the findings of the Justice Department, Schlanger said. In that case, the federal government would have to prove the allegations in a court of law, and policy changes would be ordered by a judge at the end of a trial. But Schlanger calls it “extraordinarily unlikely” that the federal government would order the dissolution of the Ferguson police department against the will of its elected officials.
“It’s a separation of powers issue,” Schlanger said. “Why should a federal court be able to tell a city whether or not it can have its own police department? That would be a very weird remedy.”
The Justice Department can also place a department in receivership. Then a federal judge places someone outside of the normal political leadership in charge, and gives him or her broad powers to make changes. It’s happened just once, and as a last resort, in a civil lawsuit against the Oakland, Calif. police department. That case was filed in December 2000, Schlanger said, and a receiver was not appointed until 12 years later, after it became clear to the federal judge in charge of the case that the Oakland police “would be unable to achieve compliance without further intervention by this court."
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