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Change is coming to Ferguson

Sherrilyn Ifill | 4/8/2015, noon
Change is coming to Ferguson. In the next few weeks the Department of Justice (DOJ) will begin to negotiate in ...
A Black Lives Matter yard sign in Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo: Moni Basu/CNN)

— Change is coming to Ferguson. In the next few weeks the Department of Justice (DOJ) will begin to negotiate in earnest with the city to restructure the police department, which the department has charged with engaging in a pattern and practice of racial discrimination.

It should not be forgotten that the DOJ review of the Ferguson Police Department was precipitated by months of protests and activism following the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer and by revelations about the town's dysfunctional government and court system by local civil rights law groups. Now, after a half year of unrest, change is coming to Ferguson. The question is, what kind of change?

The report from the Department of Justice offered a devastating insight into a police department and court system that preyed on its own citizens. Through illegal traffic stops and arrests, and the use of excessive force, the police department held town residents in bondage. The municipal court system used excessive court fines and fees to ensure that citizens arrested for even minor infractions would be charged thousands of dollars or face jail time.

Court costs and fees constituted the second-largest sources of revenue for the town. Rather than a force for public safety, the Ferguson Police Department became, according to Attorney General Eric Holder, "a collection agency" -- one that preyed disproportionately on the town's African-American residents.

The evidence of ugly and explicit racial discrimination was devastating. It included blatantly racist emails traded among officers, and evidence that African-Americans were victims in all of the police canine bite incidents recorded by the department. But just a few weeks before the release of the report, the Ferguson police chief declared there were "no racial issues" in his department.

The recommendations in the report, ranging from new training and supervision of police officers, addressing racially discriminatory conduct to structural revisions in the court system, will, if implemented, remake the law enforcement system in the town. (A grand jury that investigated the shooting of Brown by Officer Darren Wilson chose not to file charges against him and the Justice Department also didn't find reason to prosecute.)

Without question, change is coming to the town's government. Town Manager John Shaw, Ferguson's most powerful official and, until the DOJ's blistering report, the one who inexplicably managed to elude public scrutiny, resigned weeks ago and has been replaced by the city's deputy manager. Three sitting city council members chose not to run for office again and, on Tuesday, citizens elected two black candidates to the city council, changing its racial composition: Five of six members and the mayor were white. Now the council will be 50% black.

Ferguson's hapless police Chief Thomas Jackson also finally resigned after holding on through a months-long display of astonishing incompetence. The department first drew the attention of the nation for its display of military weaponry and tear gas in response to civilian protests. The appointment of a commander from the State Highway Patrol was deemed necessary to begin quelling the unrest and to build community trust in the early days of the protest.