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Ferguson, feds reach tentative police reform deal

Agreement with Ferguson requires body cams for all law enforcement workers and revision of municipal codes

The Justice Department has reached a tentative agreement with officials in Ferguson, Missouri, on systemic changes following the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014, city officials announced Wednesday.

The recommended overhaul to the Ferguson Police Department and the city's municipal court system follows seven months of negotiations and likely averts a civil rights lawsuit that federal officials can bring against departments that resist changing their policing practices.

City officials posted the proposed 131-page deal on Ferguson’s website and scheduled three public sessions over the next two weeks for input from residents. A City Council vote is scheduled for Feb. 9. The DOJ also plans a public hearing.

Under the agreement, within 180 days, all patrol officers, supervisors and jail workers will be required to wear body cameras and microphones, and the equipment will be installed inside squad cars. The cameras are to be activated for all traffic stops, arrests, searches and encounters with people believed to be experiencing a mental health crisis.

The city also agrees to revise its municipal code, including by repealing sections that authorized jail for people who fail to pay fines for violations.

Ferguson spokesman Jeff Small said the city has not calculated its total financial obligations but called them “significant.” Ferguson voters will consider two ballot measures in April that would increase property and sales taxes — without which the city expects to resort to layoffs to help plug a $2.8 million budget shortfall.

“It's going to depend on the public,” Small said about the proposal's expected chances of approval by elected leaders. “We're not just going to negotiate and say, ‘Boom. This is what you have to live with as a community.’”

federal investigation into the Ferguson police force after Brown's death found sweeping patterns of racial bias across the city's criminal justice system. A Justice Department report in March found that officers routinely used excessive force, issued petty citations and made baseless traffic stops. It also found that the police force and the court system lean heavily on fines for petty municipal violations as a source of revenue for the city government.

The federal inquiry came amid heightened national scrutiny over deadly police shootings in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere. A St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict former Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, who is white, in the death of Brown, who was black.

The Justice Department also cleared Wilson, concluding that evidence backed his claim that he shot Brown in self-defense after Brown tried to grab his gun during a struggle through the window of Wilson's police vehicle, then came toward him threateningly after briefly running away.

The document released Wednesday paves the way for an overhaul of the police force, requiring changes in how officers conduct searches, make arrests and interact with citizens. Some requirements appear aimed at correcting problems identified in the scathing federal report last year. 

The proposal also calls for police officers and court employees to be given annual training on “bias-free policing” to help them recognize unconscious stereotyping in their interactions and decisions.

New training would also be given on proper stops, searches and arrests, as well as on use of force and appropriate responses to demonstrators and protesters.

In addition, the city will develop a recruitment plan to attract more minorities to a police force that drew scrutiny after Brown's death for being nearly all white.

Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Office of Civil Rights, said “the entire Ferguson community has reason to be proud” about the proposal.

“Diligent implementation of this agreement will ensure that police and court services in Ferguson are provided in a manner that fully promotes public safety, respects the fundamental rights of all Ferguson residents, and makes policing in Ferguson safer and more rewarding for officers,” Gupta wrote in a letter to city leaders on Tuesday.

The city called the deal “the best agreement that the city's representatives were able to obtain for the citizens.”

“As in all negotiations, neither side received everything that they requested, and both sides made concessions in order to reach an agreement,” the Ferguson statement reads.

The Associated Press

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