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Lessons from Ferguson

This is what happens when a town reneges on its pledge to treat all citizens fairly.

There never was much doubt the federal government would sue the city of Ferguson, Mo., if it couldn't reach an agreement with the St. Louis suburb to reform its criminal justice system. The city came under intense scrutiny by the Justice Department in 2014 after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by white police officer Darren Wilson. That incident sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and launched the Black Lives Matter movement that has become a potent force among young people across the country — and particularly here in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray.

Last week, after months of negotiations with the city, the Justice Department filed a civil rights lawsuit to force Ferguson to adopt reforms after its city council reneged on a promise to voluntarily improve the way police and courts treat poor people and minorities. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Ferguson's rejection of the deal left her no choice given the town's "ongoing and pervasive" violations of residents' rights and its misuse of the criminal justice system to generate municipal revenues.

"The city of Ferguson had a real opportunity here to step forward, and instead they've turned backward," she said. "They've chosen to live in the past." Among the changes the department is calling for are a prohibition against officers making arrests without probable cause, installing a federal monitor to oversee policing practices and barring officers from using stun guns as punishment. The plan also called for raising the salaries in the Ferguson police department to attract better recruits and more minority officers.

Ferguson officials claim they can't afford the changes DOJ is demanding without bankrupting the city. The St. Louis suburb has a population of 21,000 and a total annual budget of just $14 million. A recent financial analysis found that complying with the agreement could cost the city nearly $4 million in the first year alone, and several million more in subsequent years. But if the case goes to trial, as now seems likely, Ferguson could end up paying millions to defend itself in court on top of what it would have spent had it signed off on the reforms.

The case is being closely watched in Baltimore, where DOJ investigators began a civil rights investigation of the police department after the death of Freddie Gray last year. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and city Police Commissioner Kevin Davis have pledged to cooperate with federal authorities, who are expected to issue a report on their findings later this year. Depending on what the feds turn up it's entirely possible that Baltimore eventually could face the threat of a civil rights lawsuit similar to the one filed against Ferguson.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake has been under fire for hiring an outside law firm to help the city negotiate with Justice Department lawyers, with some City Council members saying it calls into question her seriousness about reform. After the news broke in Ferguson last week, she tweeted a link to the New York Times article about the suit with the message, "Here's why I brought in experienced outside counsel." Of course, Ferguson hired private counsel, too. What it didn't have was the political will to carry out the long-needed reforms that were identified during that process.

Whatever the outcome of the DOJ investigation in Baltimore, it's clear the city will have to muster a long-term commitment to institutional change that guarantees the rights of every citizen who comes in contact with its police and courts. A criminal justice system that doesn't protect the people it is supposed to serve can never expect to win the community's trust.

Ultimately, whether Baltimore follows through or balks like Ferguson won't be up to Ms. Rawlings-Blake — and maybe not Commissioner Davis either. She will leave office in December, and his hold on the job under her successor is far from assured. That's why voters need to demand that candidates for mayor and City Council specifically discuss their commitment to implementing the reforms that may be required by the DOJ review. Just because the outgoing mayor requested the investigation doesn't mean her successor will follow through.

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