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

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles speaks during a Feb. 2 City Council meeting, where residents spoke with city leaders following a preliminary consent agreement with the Justice Department.
Jeff Roberson

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 Consideredhost 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.

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.

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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff