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The Power of Now
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After reviewing the proposed consent decree between the City of Ferguson, MO and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) to implement critical policing and municipal court reforms—and after consulting with local community leaders and organizations—the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) believes the agreement is a crucial step towards protecting the lives and civil rights of all Ferguson residents, particularly its African-American residents. We forcefully reject the contention that the agreement will be too expensive to implement; no civil right is too costly to enforce or protect. LDF calls upon the Ferguson City Council to approve the decree immediately following its last scheduled public hearing later today.
“Local and state actors have used claims of insufficient funding to try to elude legal mandates since time immemorial, including desegregation in the South, eliminating bias in hiring and training, improving prison conditions, and countless other civil rights advancements,” stated LDF’s President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill. “We reject this argument out of hand as an affront to democracy. All public institutions, including police departments, must operate in accordance with the U.S. Constitution. The Ferguson City Council must approve the proposed consent decree and work diligently and immediately to acquire the necessary funds to protect the lives and civil rights of all its residents, regardless of race.”
“We encourage Ferguson officials to think creatively about how to meet the costs of implementation of the proposed consent decree,” says Monique Dixon, LDF’s Deputy Director and Senior Counsel. “This may include consulting with other cities that have successfully implemented similar consent decrees, accepting any free technical assistance from the DOJ, and applying for state or federal grants.”
The approval of the consent decree is an urgent matter than cannot wait. We are disheartened that the response of Ferguson residents to the decree has, seemingly, split along racial lines and that procedural disputes involving a vacant city council seat have distracted from the significance of the city council’s impending vote on the decree.
The proposed consent decree contains many promising provisions that, if properly implemented, will measurably decrease, if not eradicate, the use of excessive or lethal force by Ferguson police of the kind that resulted in the tragic August 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American. Additionally, many provisions in the consent decree serve to eliminate the unlawful, racially biased, and predatory policing and court practices that Ferguson police and employees used historically to generate revenue for the city, as detailed in the DOJ’s report entitled, “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department” (March 4, 2015).
Some promising provisions in the proposed consent decree include anti-bias training requirements; new policies on use-of-force and de-escalation training for police; changes in policies and disciplinary procedures governing stop, search, citation and arrest documentation; expanded data reporting on police activities and police misconduct complaints; and reform of the municipal court system to comply with the state’s caps on the amount of revenue that can be collected by fines and fees. However, the consent decree should be strengthened further to fully address the pattern and practice of discrimination that DOJ found and documented in its comprehensive investigation, and that Ferguson residents have experienced firsthand for years. Therefore, it is imperative that the Ferguson officials approve the consent decree and ask the federal court to conduct a “fairness hearing” that will solicit community input to ensure that the decree’s provisions reflect the best viable practices for reversing Ferguson’s racially-biased policing and court practices.
In addition, because Ferguson has a documented history of violating federal, state, and local laws in the administration of its justice system, the selection of the monitor who will supervise the completion of each provision of the consent decree is crucial. The monitor must have the trust of the Ferguson community, and the community should be involved in the selection of the monitor and his or her team. LDF also recommends that the consent decree terminate in no less than five consecutive years after Ferguson has been in full and effective compliance with the decree’s terms.
Any fairness hearing should also include an examination of consent decree provisions concerning: 1) police stops to ensure that they are based on specific and reliable suspect descriptions that include not just race, age, and gender, but other identifying characteristics and information; 2) protests and demonstrations to prohibit the use of military-style equipment and weapons by law enforcement agencies who assist the Ferguson Police Department with managing protests; 3) body-worn and in-car camera programs to ensure that they are not used as surveillance for constitutionally protected activities, such as protests; 4) a school resource officer (SRO) program, an assessment of the need for such a program, and a prohibition on SROs from using body-worn cameras in a school setting to protect the confidentiality and privacy rights of students; and 5) municipal court reform to ensure that the proposed ability-to-pay system, which requires judges to assess fines based on a person’s financial capacity, is extended to individuals who participate in community service—and that the rate at which community service hours are calculated is based on a person’s ability to pay.
We reiterate our call to the Ferguson City Council to approve the consent decree at its meeting this evening. Ferguson must then work rapidly and effectively—following a fairness hearing and final court approval—to eliminate racial bias from its police force and court system.
Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.