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Department of Justice sues Ferguson over civil rights violations

Ferguson courthouse
File photo | Bill Greenblatt | UPI
The Department of Justice has sued the city of Ferguson over unconstitutional policing and municipal court practices.

The U.S. Department of Justicehas filed a lawsuit against the city of Ferguson, alleging widespread constitutional violations in how it polices its residents. 

"The residents of Ferguson have waited nearly a year for their city to adopt an agreement that would protect their rights and keep them safe," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Wednesday at a news conference. "We intend to aggressively prosecute this case, and we intend to win."

The path to this lawsuit began when the Department of Justice released its findings on policing and municipal courts in Ferguson. In a blistering 105-page report, investigators documented practices that were focused mostly on generating revenue, and disproportionately targeted African Americans.

"Our investigation uncovered a community in distress, in which residents felt alienated from their own police force and their own local government," Lynch said. "The Ferguson police department's violations in particular were expansive and deliberate."

Over the next 11 months, negotiators from Ferguson, led by Chicago attorney Dan K. Webb of the law firm Winston & Strawn, worked with the Department of Justice to craft a proposed consent decree that would have forced Ferguson to make extensive and costly changes. Estimates ranged from $2 million to $4 million a year, including the salary of an outside monitor to make sure Ferguson complied with the decree. The consent decree was also written to apply to any police department that handled those duties in Ferguson.

After three heated public hearings, the Ferguson City Council met Tuesday to make one of the biggest decisions in the city's history. After a few hours more of debate, members decided to attach conditions to the department's consent decree in an effort to reduce the financial burden on the city.

"The state of Missouri constitutionally requires us to have a balanced budget," said Ferguson Mayor James Knowles. "Agreeing to something that you don't have money in the bank to cover — that's just impossible for us to meet."

Webb, the attorney, said it could cost as much as $8 million for Ferguson to fight the lawsuit in the courts.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch
Credit U.S Department of Justice | file photo
Attorney General Loretta Lynch

The cost excuse didn't sit well with Lynch, the attorney general.

"We are always cost-sensitive when we deal with municipalities," she said. "However, there is no price for constitutional policing."

Lynch said the federal government had offered Ferguson cost-free technical assistance and police training. She did not speculate on whether additional negotiations would take place.

A spokesman for the city did not comment on the lawsuit. 

On Saturday, Tim Fitch, the former chief of the St. Louis County Police, tweeted, "The ONLY hope for Ferguson is to reject the DOJ offer — get sued — and delay in court until the presidential election." He included a hash tag, #RollTheDice

He had this to say on Wednesday:

Jason Rosenbaum and Camille Phillips contributed reporting to this story.

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