How Will the Feds Reform Ferguson’s Police?

The Justice Department is expected to release the findings of its investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department—and, possibly, sue.
Police officers at protests after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo: Joshua Lott/Reuters)
Feb 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

When a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri, fatally shot an unarmed black teenager last summer, the national uproar put the town’s 53-member police force in the spotlight. The glare, however, moved the federal government to investigate one of the Ferguson black community’s long-standing complaints: The officers sworn to protect them abused their power.

Now, the Justice Department’s probe of the Ferguson Police Department is nearly done—outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder seemed to confirm it at a recent Washington press luncheon. Experts expect the department will sue the FPD. If that happens, Ferguson police will be the latest department to face sanctions since the passage of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The law basically allows the federal government to investigate systemic problems and civil-rights complaints in local police agencies. It has become a powerful tool to reform law-enforcement agencies from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles.

Three years ago in New Orleans, the Justice Department sued after federal investigators found evidence of widespread corruption, racial discrimination, and abuse of power. The same year, the federal government sued Seattle’s police force after investigators uncovered a pattern of officers using excessive force. In each case, the Justice Department used the lawsuits as leverage. If the departments accepted consent decrees—highly detailed pacts to make structural changes or sweeping reforms—the lawsuits, and the threat of huge settlements or penalties, would be dismissed.

“There hasn’t been one that went to court where it’s actually been tried in court,” said Samuel Walker, a leading expert on police accountability and a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “These are negotiated,” usually with court oversight.

In Ferguson, Officer Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown last August unleashed anger over the mostly white department’s treatment of the majority-black city. Holder personally visited the city to express his concern and promised a thorough investigation.

Complaints ranged from excessive use of force—exemplified by Brown’s death—to a disproportionate number of traffic tickets and civil fines issued to black residents. There apparently isn’t enough evidence to charge Wilson for Brown’s death. But there is enough of a pattern of department-wide misconduct to order reforms.

The evidence federal investigators found in Ferguson will likely be the lawsuit’s foundation, Walker said. After the suit is filed, he said, the federal government and the city will negotiate a consent decree that likely would contain three key elements: a definition of the misbehavior, internal systems to track and stop it, and a plan to create public accountability. “They all look pretty much the same when you get down to it,” Walker said. “It’s basically the equivalent of a plea bargain: ‘We the city agree to make the following reforms.’ ”

Defining the problem could involve an overhaul of use-of-force guidelines. Changing bad behavior comes through department-wide retraining, removing ineffective or resistant supervisors, and using computerized data to weed out problem cops.

In Ferguson’s case, it could also mean the department will reboot its hiring standards with diversity goals, Walker added. Accountability usually comes through revising the procedure for filing complaints against police, or the creation of an independent conduct-review board. Perhaps the most crucial element: a court-appointed monitor who oversees the reforms and forces the department to adhere to an implementation deadline, typically five years, Walker said. If the department meets its goals, the monitor has the power to ask a judge to lift the consent decree. If it fails, the monitor can ask a judge to extend the federal oversight.

The bottom line, Walker said, is that Ferguson’s police department isn’t an outlier when it comes to bad behavior. Reforms will be a painful but necessary process to help the department better serve its citizens. Some officers might resist the changes, or grumble about Washington bureaucrats scrutinizing their every move. “Typically the officers don’t like it,” he said. “They feel they’re being blamed for problems beyond their control.” But at the end of most decrees, “in monitors’ final reports, police departments have been reformed. They’ve been improved.”

For a really troubled department like Ferguson, he said, “this federal intervention is an effective way of jump-starting and putting in place some important reforms.”