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The City Of Ferguson And Department Of Justice Battle On

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we want to check in on the ongoing efforts to address police and community relations in Ferguson, Mo. A federal investigation of police practices there led to a 131-page agreement between the Justice Department and the city. But last week, Ferguson council members rejected aspects of the deal and sought to renegotiate with the Justice Department. In response, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the city. As St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum reports, much of the disagreement comes down to what it will cost to change Ferguson's government.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, what's going on?

JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: On a foggy Monday morning in Ferguson, customers trickle in and out of Sam's Meat Market. They pick up soda pop and snacks. The small grocery store reopened last summer after being looted three times and set on fire during riots over Michael Brown's shooting death. Shop owner Muhammad Yaacoub says business can get very slow. Empty lots and abandoned buildings surround his business on West Florissant Avenue. Yaacoub worries higher taxes will be needed if the city signs a consent decree with the federal government.

MUHAMMAD YAACOUB: And more taxes, more expensive, more - that's going to hurt the businesses. It supposed to be helping the businesses, I think. We decided to open the store again, but I hope it's not a big mistake.

CASSANDRA BUTLER: It is difficult bringing the city along to do what's in our best interests when we're divided as we are.

ROSENBAUM: That's Ferguson resident Cassandra Butler. She's worried that an ensuing court battle with the Department of Justice will make it harder for her city to come together. The negotiated decree would have made big changes to Ferguson's Police Department, such as providing officers with body cameras and additional training. But city officials balked at parts of the deal, including refusing to pay officers more money. That refusal caused the Department of Justice to sue. Asked why his city would want to pick a fight with the Justice Department, Ferguson mayor James Knowles responds...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES KNOWLES: We've been put in a situation where to sign the consent decree costs more than to fight for a better deal.

ROSENBAUM: City finance officials say the agreement would cost roughly between $2 to $4 million a year. That's compared to their estimate of $4 to $8 million to go to court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KNOWLES: We're not fighting reform, we're already embraced reform and we're already making reforms. What we're fighting is to keep from having additional onerous costs lumped onto the city that really have nothing to do with constitutional policing.

ROSENBAUM: University of Michigan law professor Margo Schlanger says cost is often a concern for cities that sign consent decrees. But she noted that Ferguson enlisted a nationally known law firm to negotiate the decree and that firm reportedly charges $1,300 an hour.

MARGO SCHLANGER: When they plead poverty as a reason not to sign the decree, observers should, you know, think pretty carefully about that argument.

ROSENBAUM: Nick Kasoff agrees. He's a property owner and landlord. He says part of the reason the city is in a budget hole is that fewer people are being pulled over and that the city no longer automatically tickets people for running red lights. Ferguson took in roughly 13 percent of its revenues from fines during the 2013 fiscal year.

NICK KASOFF: There can be no mistake about it - had Mike Brown not been killed, these practices would continue to this day.

(APPLAUSE)

KASOFF: People would still be losing jobs, families would still be losing their homes because we would still be locking up poor people and demanding that they die over dollars.

ROSENBAUM: Ferguson officials insist they are making big changes, including boosting training for police officers. But the decision to reject the Justice Department's entire deal means the city and the federal government are headed for a legal collision course that will be expensive regardless of the outcome. For NPR News, I'm Jason Rosenbaum in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.