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How much could it cost Ferguson to do what the Justice Department is asking?

Ferguson police headquarters on March 3, 2015
File photo |UPI | Bill Greenblatt

The Ferguson police department is likely facing stricter federal oversight of its police department after a scathing report from the U.S. Department of Justice found its officers deliberately violated the rights of African Americans. Bringing a department into compliance with a federal consent decree can be an expensive proposition.

East Haven, Conn., a town of about 30,000 people on the north bank of Long Island Sound, entered into a consent decree with the Department of Justice in 2012 after an investigation found its officers unfairly targeted Hispanics in traffic stops. The town had to draft new policing policies, train their officers on bias-free policing, and provide language assistance to non-English speakers.

The town's finance director, Paul Rizza, said he and other officials estimated that compliance will cost about $2.8 million over the full five years of the decree. The town paid for the first $300,000 from a contingency fund and the police department's budget. It then sold $2.5 million in bonds to cover the rest. Bond payments will be about $170,000 a year, from a $90 million general fund budget.

East Haven hasn't had to sacrifice anything yet to cover those bills, Rizza said.

"But it’s always in the back of everyone’s mind when we talk about borrowing, whether we’re looking for heavy equipment, or police vehicles, or doing road work or sewer replacement," he said.

Personnel costs have made up the largest chunk of expenses.

"We have 54 sworn officers, and they all have to be trained," Rizza said. "And most of the training takes place on an overtime basis."

With 30,000 people, East Haven is just a bit bigger than Ferguson, and its department has about the same number of police officers. So why did former St. Louis County chief Tim Fitch tell St. Louis Public Radio that compliance could bankrupt Ferguson

The cost to Ferguson may be much higher than that in East Haven — a figure that won't be known until a consent decree is reached or the Justice Department files suit. A court case would be much more expensive than complying with a settlement. 

In addition, East Haven has a much bigger budget than Ferguson. Rizza said his town has a general fund of about $90 million, compared to $13 million in Ferguson. Finally, Ferguson is heavily reliant on court fines and fees for revenue — about $3 million in its 2015 budget. The use of courts as an ATM drew a sharp rebuke from the justice department. And there are efforts underway in Jefferson City to limit that revenue to 10 percent of a city's budget. Mandatory expenses will increase as a result of federal intervention, making any potential loss of revenue from fines even more difficult to deal with.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.