Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday he was "prepared to use all the powers" the federal government has to get the city of Ferguson, Missouri, in line with the Constitution. Asked if that included "dismantling the police force," Holder said, "If that's what's necessary, we're prepared to do that."
It sounds like a radical move on Holder's part. But don't get too swept up in it. The DOJ doesn't exactly have the power to dismantle the Ferguson police department if the city doesn't consent — and would have to go through a lot of steps before getting that power. Plus, dismantling the embattled police department might not fix some of the worst problems outlined in the Justice Department's report.
It would only work if Ferguson agreed to abolish its police department
The Department of Justice doesn't have the power to dismantle local police departments at will. The way it's probably going to "work with" the City of Ferguson, as Holder also hinted today, is by drawing up an agreement where Ferguson's police would still be independent, but would be monitored by the DOJ. (The agreement would be enforced in federal court.) The feds would only take over if the city failed, and failed badly, to make the changes laid out in the agreement.
This nearly happened in Oakland in 2012; as a compromise, the federal government fired the police chief but left the department under the city's control. But it was a full decade after the agreement was first signed.
If Holder really wants to tear down the Ferguson Police Department and start over, the best way to do that would be to make dissolution part of the original court-enforced agreement. If the city didn't agree, he could sue them to do it (which would also take years).
But given how expensive it's going to be for Ferguson's police to comply with the likely court agreement, it might actually be cheaper for them to agree to give up and try again. So the possibility exists that the Ferguson police department will be dissolved — but it would almost certainly be because the city of Ferguson agreed to do it, or even suggested it in the first place. That also means the city would be in charge of putting together whatever is going to replace the Ferguson PD.
The question: who would replace the Ferguson police?
Getting rid of the police in Ferguson would only address half of the problems identified by the federal government. The Department of Justice also found massive discrimination and Constitutional violations in the municipal court system, including arresting people for showing up to court without being able to afford a court fee; suspending drivers' licenses of people who didn't even know that they'd had a court date, let alone missed one; and setting jail bonds not based on what someone would be able to pay, but based on making the most money for the city.
There's no way the federal government's going to be satisfied if Ferguson reforms its police but leaves its courts the way they are. Disbanding the police department might allow the city to focus on reforming the courts, but it won't be enough on its own.
More importantly, though, who would do police work in Ferguson after the Ferguson police force gets dismantled?
Typically, a nearby police force is brought in to take over: either temporarily, while a new police department is hired from the chief down, or permanently, on a contract. And it's not at all clear whether other police departments in the St. Louis area are any better. After all, residents had plenty of experience with the St. Louis County police last summer during the protests after Michael Brown's death — and they didn't treat protesters any better than Ferguson police did.
The DOJ report certainly indicates that the problem in St. Louis is bigger than Ferguson. In fact, some of the things it faults the Ferguson police for doing are things they're being asked to do by other jurisdictions, like arresting people without warrants based on requests from police in other departments. By the same token, many of the unfair court practices the DOJ found appear to be pretty typical in municipal courts in the area.
The report even says: "Individuals’ experiences with other law enforcement agencies in St. Louis County, including with the police departments in surrounding municipalities and the County Police, in many instances have contributed to a general distrust of law enforcement that impacts interactions with the Ferguson police and municipal court."
If Eric Holder wants to dismantle the problems facing the criminal-justice system throughout the St. Louis area, he's welcome to try — but it's going to take a lot more investigations and potential lawsuits than the one he has going right now.