Justice Department Files Civil Rights Lawsuit Against Ferguson, Mo.

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The federal civil rights lawsuit comes after the Ferguson city council adjusted terms of a negotiated settlement meant to bring the police force, jail and local court system in line.

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Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The the U.S. Justice Department is suing Ferguson, Mo. The civil rights lawsuit follows months of back-and-forth over a settlement that was supposed to clean up the city's police force, jail and local court system. With us to talk about the case is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What's the basis for this lawsuit?

JOHNSON: So, Ari, remember. Civil rights investigators from the Justice Department dived into Ferguson, this place near St. Louis, in the summer of 2014 after a white policeman killed an unarmed 18-year-old black man named Michael Brown. And they found, eventually, after lots of interviews with residents and reviews of records, a huge number of constitutional violations - excessive force by police, discriminatory policing, busting people for merely exercising their First Amendment rights.

And Ari, unbelievably, the Justice Department was able to back this up with a lot of data - African-Americans being the only people police in Ferguson use dogs against, more than twice as likely to be stopped for traffic violations but less likely than white people to be carrying drugs or found to be carrying drugs - a lot of bad stuff.

SHAPIRO: Well, officials in Ferguson and the Justice Department negotiated a settlement out of this, right? So what happened? How are we now looking at a lawsuit?

JOHNSON: Yeah, there were at least several months of negotiations. And in fact, just last month, the Justice Department in Ferguson put out 131-page consent decree that required a pretty big overhaul of the police department, the jail and the local court system which DOJ had found to be generating revenue on the backs of citizens in Ferguson rather than protecting public safety.

Fast-forward to last night. The city council in Ferguson amended the agreement with the Justice Department in about seven different ways, and the Justice Department, Ari, early this morning went ballistic. That was not part of the deal.

SHAPIRO: Is that the legal term for it - going ballistic?

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Well, what happens now?

JOHNSON: So the Justice Department has just filed lawsuit - this lawsuit - this civil rights lawsuit in federal court in St. Louis alleging violations of the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, using excessive force and the 14th Amendment as well as a bunch of civil rights laws that have been on the books since the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles.

So right now, we're going to be going to court. We're going to be waiting to hear from Ferguson about what they're going to do. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in a news conference this afternoon just said, we intend to vigorously prosecute this, and we intend to prevail - a rather steely tone from the U.S. attorney general.

SHAPIRO: You know, so often these civil rights lawsuits that you've covered over the years, that I covered when I was the justice correspondent, result in settlement agreements. If the initial settlement agreement resulted in this lawsuit, are we looking at an ultimate outcome of another settlement agreement or what?

JOHNSON: There may yet be a settlement here, Ari. The Ferguson officials that have been quoted on the record over the last several hours have indicated they want to go back to the table. The issue is, this stuff is expensive. To do good policing and to have strong courts is expensive - by some accounts $4 million in one year for Ferguson to fulfill the terms of the deal that it negotiated with Justice. The question is whether they want to pay that much in making their police better or whether they want to pay that much in lawyers' fees and court.

SHAPIRO: So the Justice Department and the attorney general are really wrapping the knuckles of Ferguson, Mo., today.

JOHNSON: The attorney general, Ari, said people in Ferguson have waited too long already for justice and to be treated in a constitutional manner by their own officials, and they shouldn't have to wait anymore.

SHAPIRO: NPR justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson. Thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.