How Ferguson Is Trying to Fix Its Police Force

Your guide to the Department of Justice's agreement with the Ferguson Police Department.
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Your guide to the Department of Justice's agreement with the Ferguson Police Department.
Police stand watch as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown on August 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Police stand watch as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown on August 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Later today, the Ferguson City Council will meet to vote on a consent decree released by the Department of Justice (DOJ) after an investigation turned up evidence of civil rights violations. The document is a temporary agreement between the DOJ and the city of Ferguson, Missouri, that requires the city to reform its training, protocol, and community relations in order to avoid facing a lawsuit. The DOJ released the 131-page document late last month, giving the city council and the people of Ferguson just two weeks to review it.

The major concern now is cost, especially in a city where almost one-fourth of the residents are below the poverty line. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports: "Ferguson, which has an annual operating budget of $14.5 million, released the proposal on Jan. 27. Since then, each estimate of the expense of carrying it out has climbed—from yearly costs of $800,000 to $1.5 million to $3.7 million."

It's not a one-time cost—the Ferguson Police Department must meet the guidelines for two consecutive years to terminate the agreement. Here are some of the changes the consent decree requires:

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT

Within 180 days, the FPD will begin participating in small moderated discussion groups with community members. Each officer will participate in one of these meetings, designed to facilitate relationships between police and communities with which they haven't had strong relationships in the past (like minorities and low-income residents). The FPD will also create opportunities for police-community interaction, including an FPD explorer program where young people can learn police skills.

As part of a commitment to policing that focuses on community issues, a neighborhood policing steering committee, a youth advisory board, and an apartment neighborhood group will be created to advise the police.

FIRST AMENDMENT PROTECTED ACTIVITY

The consent decree affirms the right of the public to both record and protest police activities. FPD policies and training are to make it clear to officers when a protester or recorder is (and, more importantly, isn't) interfering with police duties. If they believe a recording or image contains evidence related to a felony, officers have 12 hours to search it while in the process of obtaining a warrant.

Officers cannot use canines for crowd control at a protest, nor can they take the subject of a protest into account while policing during the event. Not only is there to be a centralized mechanism for citizens to file complaints, the decree makes sure to offer protection to both journalists and citizen journalists—an important measure since bloggers and Twitter users provided crucial on-the-ground reporting after Michael Brown's death.

FORCE

The primary goal of the decree's sections on physical force is de-escalation. While other sections focus on community relations, this one is more direct: How can the FPD prevent one of its officers from becoming another Darren Wilson? The focus here is on accountability and proper use of weapons. Officers will be expected to report any use of force before their shift ends, and to recognize when someone isn't a threat, but is instead mentally ill or under the influence of drugs. A force review board will examine the use of force and determine whether the officer in question was justified in using it. Many of the new guidelines—including a requirement to seek medical attention for people injured by police force, and a ban on any holds that limit a person's breathing—come in direct response to prior misconduct. The document also has guidelines for body and dashboard cameras, including a requirement that footage be stored for 180 days and be made publicly available.

STAFFING

When it comes to staffing, the top priority of the consent decree is to create a police force that better represents the demographics of the community it serves. In line with that, the FPD will be required to establish outreach programs for local students and former military members. Information about applying will be readily available online, and applications can be submitted through the FPD website. There will be "a preference for Ferguson residents, low-income individuals, and graduates of the Ferguson-Florissant School District" or several other local school districts. The decree also calls for regular performance evaluations and asks that promotions be given to officers who most closely follow the new guidelines.

Much of the rest of the decree focuses on updated training, municipal court reform (including restrictions on fines), and the importance of information availability. Not only does it demand that the FPD hold itself accountable, it expects and invites civilians to do the same, whether that's by appointing a third party monitor to oversee the program, or by making sure there's a centrally accessible database for the public to review complaints against the department. Transparency is the key to the entire process.

While the requirements are far-reaching, it will take a lot for the public to regain its trust in police officers.

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