Next week, Justice Department lawyers will head to Ferguson, Missouri, to begin discussions about how to reform the city's embattled police department. Earlier this month, the Justice Department issued a searing 100-page report detailing widespread racial bias within the Ferguson police force, and now the city will be asked to decide whether it wants to reform the existing police department or disband it altogether.
Vanita Gupta was named acting head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department in mid-October, and in the first on-camera interview she's granted since her appointment, she talked to CBS News about plans for Ferguson.
Gupta, who came to the Civil Rights Division from the ACLU, feels a "great urgency" to get the reforms into place. "[O]nce we issue our findings, we really don't want to have a system where we know there are unconstitutional practices. We want to be able to reach an agreement to immediately stop them," she said.
Gupta wants the city to have a significant stake in what change looks like. "The Justice Department can't come in and dictate everything. We need to hear from the city and community about what kind of police force they want in town."
Already, the Justice Department's report, while it hasn't exactly dictated everything, has had an immediate impact. Its criticism of Ferguson law enforcement for racial profiling and of the municipal court system for using fines for minor offenses to generate $3 million in revenues has spurred personnel changes. Ferguson's city manager stepped down, as did municipal Judge Ronald Brockmeyer. And two police officers whose emails with racist jokes were part of the report have left the department.
This next part of the process for Ferguson offers the city and community a chance to collaborate, but if the city and the federal government cannot agree on reforms, the Department of Justice can sue and, in that case, could end up forcing change on the city. But Ferguson seems to be embracing the necessary changes, so Gupta is feeling optimistic.
"We were communicating with the city throughout the course of our investigation, and they had already started to take corrective measures. There is much, much more work to be done, but I think that we know that there is a path to reaching an agreement and to be able to produce transformative change," she said.
Ferguson, however, is only one part of a more widespread problem, and it remains to be seen whether changes undertaken there can catalyze change in surrounding counties that have been found to have similar discriminatory policies.
"[O]ur hope is going to be that those neighboring jurisdictions very close to Ferguson, engaging in similar practices, will take note of the reforms we put in place in Ferguson," said Gupta.
She knows that reform, whether collaborative or court-enforced, will take time, as will rebuilding trust between the community and law enforcement. Gupta is heartened by what she's seen so far -- "concrete action with real commitment from the city, from the police department, from the community."
Gupta believes that longer-term reform is the key to turning around the relationship between the community and law enforcement. "I think there is no question that can happen in Ferguson, but we are just beginning now to undertake the work that is going to take to rebuild the trust."