Justice Department Files Lawsuit to Bring Constitutional Policing to Ferguson, Missouri

February 15, 2020

everyone. Thank you for joining me here today. I am joined here also by Vanita Gupta, the
head of our Civil Rights Division. Nearly a year ago, the Department of Justice
released our findings in an investigation of the Police Department of Ferguson, Missouri.
Our investigation uncovered a community in distress, in which residents felt alienated
from their own police force and their own local government. The Ferguson Police Department’s
violations in particular, were expansive and deliberate. They violated the Fourth Amendment
by stopping people without reasonable suspicion, by arresting them without cause and by using
unreasonable force. They made enforcement decisions based on the way individuals expressed
themselves and they unnecessarily escalated non-life threatening situations. These violations
were not only egregious – they were routine. They were encouraged by the city in the interest
of raising revenue. They were driven, at least in part, by racial bias and they occurred
disproportionately against African-American residents of Ferguson. And they were profoundly
and fundamentally unconstitutional. The government’s findings were based upon information received
from Ferguson’s own citizens, from Ferguson’s own records and Ferguson’s own officials.
And they demonstrated a clear pattern and practice of violations of the Constitution
and of federal law. After announcing our findings almost a year
ago, we began negotiations with the city of Ferguson on a court-enforceable consent decree
that would bring about necessary police and court reform. From the outset, we made clear
that our goal was to reach an agreement to avoid litigation. But we also made clear that
if there was no agreement, we would be forced to go to court to protect the rights of Ferguson
residents. Painstaking negotiations lasted more than 26 weeks as we sought to remedy
literally years of systemic and systematic deficiencies. A few weeks ago, the Department
of Justice and Ferguson’s own negotiators came to an agreement that was both fair and
cost-effective – and that would provide all the residents of Ferguson the constitutional
and effective policing and court practices guaranteed to all Americans. As agreed, it
was presented to the Ferguson City Council for approval or rejection. And last night,
the Ferguson City Council rejected the consent decree approved by their own negotiators.
Their decision leaves us no further choice. Today, the Department of Justice is filing
a lawsuit in federal District Court against the city of Ferguson, Missouri, alleging a
pattern and practice of law enforcement conduct that violates the First, the Fourth and the
14th Amendments of the Constitution and federal civil rights laws. We intend to aggressively
prosecute this case and we intend to prevail. 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. They have waited nearly a year for their police department to accept rules that would
ensure their constitutional rights and rules that thousands of other police departments
follow every day. They have waited nearly a year for their municipal courts to commit
to basic, reasonable rules and standards. But as our report made clear, the residents
of Ferguson have suffered the deprivation of their constitutional rights – the rights
guaranteed to all Americans – for decades. They have waited decades for justice. They
should not be forced to wait any longer. Thank you. Do you have any questions? PAULA REID (CBS): This is- this is fast. I
mean this is less than a day after the vote, less than a year after the findings report,
why not go back and continue to negotiate? Bankruptcy for a city is a legitimate concern.
And do you think that bankruptcy is a fair potential consequence for this type of investigation? AG LYNCH: You know what I can say is that
throughout the discussions with the city, beginning with the report and going throughout
these 26 weeks of negotiation, we were very sensitive to cost concerns. In fact, as you
note, you have in your packet information in our Jan. 26, letter. We have provided free
technical assistance to them during this time period, at no cost to the city. So we have
been sensitive to their concerns and we have discussed this issue with the city. We have reached- we had come to terms on an
agreement to be presented to the city council. That agreement was to be approved or rejected.
The city was clear last night that they rejected that agreement. MIKE LEVINE (ABC): Madame Attorney General,
what was your reaction when you heard that the council had rejected this? AG LYNCH: Disappointment. Disappointment that
they chose litigation over a faster route that would bring constitutional policing to
the police department and municipal court system. SARI HORWITZ (WASHINGTON POST): What is your
understanding of what the sticking points were? AG LYNCH: Sorry, can you speak up? SARI HORWITZ (WASHINGTON POST): What is your
understanding of what the sticking points were? Why did the city council vote this consent
decree down? What is your understanding of the details of what was problematic? AG LYNCH: Well the city council had public
hearings on that. But it’s unclear as to whether or not those are the concerns that
they were relaying upon. You’d have to refer to them as to what their concerns were. What
I can say is that after painstaking negotiation, a document was reached in which every detail
was discussed by both sides, and decided to present that document to the city council
for approval or rejection. Every part of that document was discussed and was negotiated
extensively. JULIA EDWARDS (REUTERS): Thank you. Ah, the
mayor of Ferguson said today in a press conference that they were willing to negotiate with the
Department of Justice in order to put the ball in your court to come to some kind of
an agreement. And he also said it was only within the last two weeks that the cost- the
full cost of what the consent decree would mean for the city became clear to him. And
that’s why they wanted to vote on it. What is your reaction to that? Do you think that
there is umm- would there have been room for negotiation, and why did you decide instead
to announce this litigation? AG LYNCH: Well, we simply followed through
on the discussions that we’ve had with the city for almost a year, in which we made clear
from the beginning that our goal was to avoid litigation and come to a court enforceable
agreement that would provide the constitutional policing and municipal practices. As I indicated, we were sensitive to costs
– those discussions were had. And in fact, as we’ve indicated, the agreement that was
being reviewed and was discussed was painstakingly negotiated by both the department and the
city’s own team. That was the agreement that was to be decided upon. The city was
well aware that by deciding not to accept it, that they were choosing litigation. This
is their choice. PAMELA BROWN (CNN): In light of the… AG LYNCH: Right behind you – I was – and
then you, sorry. MATT APUZZO (NEW YORK TIMES): Do you- do you
think that the estimates that the city has put forward in the last 24-48 hours are even
legitimate? Because ah, they seem to have- to be much higher than what was estimated
before. And do you believe this process – which isn’t the normal process that you guys go
through in negotiating settlements, do you think that was done in good faith by the city? AG LYNCH: Well, you know I’m not going to
speak to the process because the city is an independent entity and they are able to set
these processes. You are correct, it’s not the normal process that we go through. As
we indicated to the city, we felt that the city council had before it an in-depth, substantial
agreement that they could vote to approve or reject. Had it been approved, we would
have filed it in court and together, we would have had a fairness hearing at which the court
– a neutral uninterested observing non-party – would have been able to listen to these
concerns. With respect to the cost estimates that were
put forth, again I’m not going to comment on the specificity of them because they did
change – uh – but I will say that as always, we are always cost-sensitive when we deal
with municipalities in this. However, there is no price for constitutional policing. The
citizens and the residents of Ferguson deserve what every American is guaranteed under the
Constitution: the right to be free from excessive force, from unconstitutional stops, from unconstitutional
arrests and from a fine system that was literally breaking their backs. PAMELA BROWN (CNN): You said that you were
disappointed when you first heard about it, but were you surprised at all given all the
negotiations that happened over the last several months? AG LYNCH: Well, you know, we had been negotiating
with a team that was responsive. We had had extensive discussions. And so we had in fact,
as you will see from the agreement that was posted several weeks ago, come up with an
extensive and detailed document that provided for substantial changes in the cities practices,
the police department’s practices and also in police and community relations. We felt
that this was in the city’s best interest – it was in the interest of the residents
of Ferguson to avoid costly litigation, and to in fact start working right away on all
of these important changes. So my main reaction is, as I indicated, was disappointment that
they had not taken advantage of that opportunity. ERIC TUCKER (AP): When you do sue and you
prevail – assuming you prevail – what does that end result look like? Does it get
you back to where you would’ve been had the consent decree been approved in the first
place, and they just then commit again to what they should’ve committed to last night? AG LYNCH: Well that certainly is one option.
Obviously, we will be monitoring the situation throughout the course of the lawsuit to make
sure that there are no new problems that rise up in Ferguson. Certainly we would be asking
for injunctive relief and specific relief. You have the complaint there in electronic
form, it basically has two causes of action – of course Section 14141, the right to
relief from excessive force, and of course, discriminatory policing based on race. So
we’re asking for relief from those actions. We’re asking for specific remedies that
would give the city- frankly we still feel they have an opportunity through this court
process, to come up with systems that would provide the substantial benefit to the city.
It is extremely unfortunate that the city has chosen to litigate this matter rather
than move directly to these remedies and reforms that would in fact have been proven a benefit
to the city and avoided the cost of litigation. RYAN REILLY (HUFFINGTON POST): I think that
several of the individuals who were mentioned in the original report were involved in the
negotiation process, specifically, the financial manager, who I believe had been dealing and
come up with some of the estimates of the cost. Do you think that that played any influence
in the cost estimates or how this proceeded? AG LYNCH: You know, I don’t have any insight
into the estimates in which they used, particularly the varying estimates, so I’m not able to
give you that information. What I will say again, as I indicated before, that we do not
believe that there is a price to be placed on our Constitution. We think all citizens
are entitled to what everyone enjoys by birth in this country – the right to be free from
excessive force; the right to be free from discriminatory policing; and we had, before
the city of Ferguson, a plan that would have allowed them to start making those reforms
right away. Indeed, we had been providing assistance to the city of Ferguson through
training and other police technical assistance at no cost to them and that would have been
a part of our ongoing discussions had we gone forward with the consent decree. RYAN REILLY (HUFFINGTON POST): Were there
any changes that they proposed, specifically, that were deal breakers for you? Was it – what
exactly were the biggest issues of the changes they filed to make? AG LYNCH: Well I think you can look and see
the issues that were raised and I’m not going to go down them in excruciating detail,
but what I can tell you is that our view is that the citizens of Ferguson deserve constitutional
policing no matter who is in charge of their police force. And to allow the city to simply
evade the terms of an agreement carefully negotiated and presumably, had it been agreed
to, by simply transferring control of the police department to another state entity,
was simply unconscionable to us. And frankly would have meant that this could have been
avoided and evaded by them at any point in time. I think that what we have to focus on,
again, is our goal, which was to achieve constitutional policing through some specific changes that
we felt would have been a real benefit and we frankly feel that our technical assistance
already had been a benefit to the police department. DEVLIN BARRETT (WALL STREET JOURNAL): To what
extent is the decision to sue based on the notion that you simply can’t have a process
where you do pattern and practice investigations and then city councils or some other entities
decide to renegotiate after you have already done the negotiation? My question is, how
much do you need to set an example of Ferguson, that this is not how DOJ will handle these
cases? AG LYNCH: Well, every case is different. We
deal with every jurisdiction on their own terms and we deal with them openly and we
hope that they deal with us in that way. This message is a very specific one to Ferguson,
it is simply a response to their decision. After literally weeks, months – almost a
year of discussion – at which point, two teams had come together with an agreement
that was going to provide real relief – it was rejected. And as we have made clear from
the outset, in the absence of a court-enforceable consent decree, we would litigate this matter. CHUCK RAASCH (ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH): Attorney
General, you say that you’re doing this protect the rights of Ferguson residents.
I’m wondering if you think that the city council of Ferguson is acting in good faith
to do the same thing? AG LYNCH: You know, I’m not going to characterize
their actions because again I haven’t spoken directly with them. But I will say that this
matter is one that has gotten a lot of public attention, so I think you’re able to observe
how it’s been conducted and I think you’ll see that both sides have spent a great deal
of time of time thinking very deeply about how to manage the situation. The Department
of Justice has provided assistance in an attempt to start the managerial process, certainly
of the police department, and so our hope and our expectation had been that we would
be able to continue that process with a consent decree. And as I’ve said before, we’re
disappointed that they’ve made a different choice. MATT APUZZO (NEW YORK TIMES): Following up
on Devlin’s question about – about the process, you guys will continue – DOJ will
continue to negotiate, presumably, as you do in any litigation, so is it not the, is
it not the negotiation that’s at issue – is it more the process? That we had a deal and
the deal says, you know, you vote it through or you get sued, or is it – is it a legitimate
sticking point on their negotiating points? Do you see – I guess that’s my question
is: are you suing because- their sort of counter offer’s no good, or are you suing because
there shouldn’t’ve been a counter offer? AG LYNCH: We’re suing because at this point
the negotiations were concluded and the agreement between the parties was that they would review-
the city council would review the agreement that had been struck by both sides and decide
whether to accept or reject it. And last night’s vote was a rejection of that. Whether or not
there’ll be further negotiations is something that I really can’t speculate on. We will
proceed with litigation and we will anticipate the city to respond in court. PAULA REID (CBS): I’d like to ask you about
something in pop culture, there’s been a lot of people talking about these issues:
Beyoncé has released a video that obliquely references two DOJ cases, the death of Michael
Brown and the death of Trayvon Martin, it’s gotten a lot of criticism from police. Have
you seen that video and do you have a reaction to it? AG LYNCH: I have not seen the video; I saw
her Super Bowl performance, so I can’t comment on the video. PAULA REID (CBS): The performance? AG LYNCH: I – I thought the performances
of all the artists at the Super Bowl were great. RYAN REILLY (HUFFINGTON POST): Even Coldplay? AG LYNCH: Everyone brought their – their
specific talents to the performances. DEL WILBER (BLOOMBERG): I know you choose
your words very carefully, but is disappointment really the right word? I mean, I’ve been
at a lot of press conferences, we all have here, and you seem rather fired up about this,
but this one disappointment – is that, like – is that really the right word? AG LYNCH: It is the right word. It is. I think
that the city of Ferguson had a real opportunity here to step forward and instead they’ve
chosen to turn backwards. They’ve chosen to live in the past, and they’ve chosen
to adopt a means of really ignoring the voices of their citizens, they’ve- they’re choosing
to ignore the complaints of their citizens, and they’re choosing to ignore the clear
findings that this department presented to them almost a year ago, in March of last year,
in March of 2015. They had many opportunities to deal with this and we had hoped they were
on that path, as we hope that every jurisdiction is on that path. Our view was that we were
moving towards a system and a process, in which we could work together to create a better
Ferguson for everyone. And I am profoundly disappointed that they made a different choice. Alright, well thank you all.

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