The U.S. Justice Department released its report Wednesday condemning the unconstitutional, racist and unjust practices of Ferguson, Missouri’s police department and municipal court. In 100 pages, the department’s Civil Rights Division paints a deeply troubling picture of a police department gone wrong where an obsession with revenue generation trumps community well-being and targets black residents with disproportionate stops, searches, arrests, fines, charges, and physical abuse.
A bit of background on the report itself: Following the death of Mike Brown at the hands of a white police officer and the surge of public protests that ensued, the Justice Department answered the community’s calls to investigate the Ferguson Police Department’s practices for racial discrimination and constitutional violations.
Alongside the general look at the department, the Civil Rights Division also opened a parallel investigation into Officer Darren Wilson’s conduct to determine whether or not the Attorney General could charge him with violating Brown’s civil rights under federal law. The Justice Department made its findings in both investigations public Wednesday, meting out a harsh rejoinder to the Ferguson Police Department while also declining to charge Wilson for breaking federal civil rights law.
During the wave of protests that rocked Ferguson — a community that is two-thirds African-American but only has four black police officers — the same message has echoed in many corners: We cannot trust this Ferguson police force because of its racist, abusive, and exploitative treatment of our neighbors, our family members, our friends, and, at times, even ourselves.
Police and city officials have long tried to sidestep such criticisms as the work of outside agitators rather than the views of the broader community. But the Justice Department’s report, from the executive summary to the final recommendations, firmly contradicts those claims.
To put it bluntly: From The New York Times' profile of the investigation, we knew the report would be bad. But it is hard to overstate just how bad it is. Here are the nine points to take away from the Ferguson report that show how deep the racial rift runs between the police and the town's African-American residents.
1. In Ferguson, the police and the municipal court worked together to drain money out of community residents through fines and petty charges.
From the city officials to the police chief to the patrol officers to the municipal court clerks, the message was clear: Bring in the revenue. From 2010 to 2014, the city made a significant portion of its budget up through the collection of fines and tickets. Officers were reminded to be productive (i.e., to issue ever increasing numbers of tickets for minor infractions), and the amount of tickets that an officer could give out in a given month played a role in deciding on promotions. In turn, the municipal court would issue arrest warrants if fines were not paid on time, further compounding people’s abilities to pay and disrupting their lives.
This emphasis on revenue, revenue, revenue meant that officers were finding nitpicky things to ticket, such as parking illegally or having tall weeds in your yard rather than focusing on public safety. As the Justice Department’s investigation summarized:
Many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.
Not to mention that many of the Ferguson residents who bore the brunt of these accumulating fines were those least able to pay. In one case, an African-American woman who was cited for illegally parking her car had a $151 fine turn into more than $1,000 owed to the city after she continually ran into trouble scrounging up the money to pay the original fine.
2. The Ferguson Police Department stopped African Americans more often, searched them more often, arrested them more often, and charged them with more offenses than officers did their white counterparts.
The statistics here are stunning. Even though a third of Ferguson’s residents are white, African Americans made up 85 percent of police traffic stops between 2012 and 2014. They constituted 90 percent of citations and 93 percent of arrests. Often they are stopped and searched for little to no reason beyond a vague or general sort of suspicion that could be tied to anti-black stereotypes — a pattern that the Justice Department rightly decried as in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
When African Americans are subject to arrest, officers pile on many more charges than they generally do for whites. The Ferguson Police Department handed out four or more citations for a single stop to African Americans on 73 separate incidents. Only two non-black people received more than four citations at once in the same time period.
And no, that is not because African Americans commit more crimes, the report reinforces. In fact, the Justice Department found that black people were 26 percent less likely to have contraband in their vehicles.
3. The Ferguson municipal court is pretty racist in how it adjudicates cases, assigns fines, and issues arrest warrants for those who fail to appear or pay court costs.
Again, the devil is in the statistical details. African Americans are 68 percent less likely to have the charges against them dropped. Their cases last longer and involve more court appearances. When cash-strapped black residents are unable to pay the hefty fines imposed for minor offenses, the municipal court can issue a warrant for their arrest and subject the delinquent revenue source to jail time. But while white people also fail to appear in court or to pay their court fees, black people are at least 50 percent more likely to land themselves with an arrest warrant and made up 92 percent of the arrest warrants distributed by the municipal court in 2013. Huh.
The municipal court does not act as a neutral arbitrator in its dealings with Ferguson residents, the Justice Department found. Instead, with its eye towards collecting as many fines and fees as possible, the court and its clerks often violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses to collect.
4. White police officers were more likely to use force, particularly unreasonable force, against blacks than whites.
In Ferguson, folks have been testifying to the problem of police brutality for years. When the Justice Department dug into the use of force reports and began to conduct interviews, the investigators saw how those stories bore out in practice. African Americans are the victims of unreasonable uses of force in almost 90 percent of cases.
The report is rife with instances of police officers overreacting to black people, particularly when the officers felt they were disrespected in some way. One woman was tasered in handcuffs in the back of a police car. Another was tasered for getting out of the car in frustration at a traffic stop. A man was tasered in the holding cell at the Ferguson Police Department. Another man with mental illness was tasered for climbing on the cell bars.
A striking counterpoint to the litany of unwarranted and overly aggressive violence against black residents is how the police responded to what sounds like an all-out brawl among mostly white residents in a bar in 2012. To choose some choice details:
Officers reported encountering ‘40-50 people actively fighting, throwing bottles and glasses, as well as chairs.’ The report noted that ‘one subject had his ear bitten off.'
Yet in calming the crowd, the police officers did not resort to their Tasers. They tried to avoid causing serious damage. Ultimately, they made no arrests but only took a couple of people back to the department to allow them to calm down. Try to tell me that would have happened if African Americans were smashing bottles.
5. Every time the Ferguson police set the dogs on someone, that someone was black.
Cue the images of Bull Connor and the Birmingham Police Department turning the dogs loose on children during the Civil Rights Movement. Out of every instance in which canines were used to apprehend someone and race information was available, each victim was African American. In some cases, the arms that the dog sunk its teeth into belonged to children of 14. Police supervisors cleared the use of the dogs in each case as appropriate for the situation.
6. To make all of this worse, the Ferguson Police Department practically did little to nothing to oversee officers’ use of force and to hold them accountable for inappropriate, unjust, or dangerous behavior.
Although the Ferguson police were supposed to have an oversight system in place, lost paperwork and cursory reviews meant that most officers could act with impunity. They knew that their supervisors would take their side of the story in a complaint about the undue use of force, assuming of course that someone was even willing to look into it. The report concludes:
Supervisors do little to no investigation; either do not understand or choose not to follow FPD’s use-of-force policy in analyzing officer conduct; rarely correct officer misconduct when they find it; and do not see the patterns of abuse that are evident when viewing these incidents in the aggregate.
Thus, the Justice Department notes, the department operates under the assumption that officers will face little to no accountability for the use of unreasonable force.
7. The Ferguson police regularly violated the First Amendment rights of the town’s African-American residents by refusing to broker any signs of verbal dissent or disrespect.
Reading the Justice Department’s report, one gets the sense that the Ferguson police officers, as a whole, sure were sensitive. Blacks who talked back to officers when they were stopped for no apparent reason on the street were liable to face arrest or physical violence. Cursing out an officer — which might seem to be bad taste but is a constitutionally protected form of free speech and is often a legitimate response to a perceived injustice — becomes “Failure to Comply” or “Failure to Obey.” (And those arrests come with records, fines, and a whole lot of hassle.) The report concludes:
Just as officers reflexively resort to arrest immediately upon noncompliance with their orders, whether lawful or not, they are quick to overreact to challenges and verbal slights.
8. In fact, the Justice Department identified certain charges that were brought almost exclusively against African Americans — many of which punished them for not showing the proper amount of deference or obedience to the officers.
“Failure to Comply” is an offense that the Ferguson Police Department wields often and with impunity against black residents who do not move quickly enough, who talk back, who try to walk away from officers, who try to film police interactions, who refuse to give their Social Security numbers, the list goes on. Not only is this exploitation of the charge an unconstitutional misinterpretation of what the law requires of people when confronted by police, but also officers used it almost exclusively against African Americans. Out of all the “Failure to Comply” charges issued from 2011 to 2013, 94 percent of them were lodged against blacks.
Add to that list of black-specific offenses of “Manner of Walking” (95 percent), “Resisting Arrest” (92 percent), “Peace Disturbance” (92 percent), and “Failure to Obey” (89 percent). The officers misunderstood their role and the obligations that these communities owed to them, the report concluded. Rather than aiming to bolster community trust and work for the best interest of the African American residents, the Ferguson police officers seemed more bent on disciplining them and bringing them to heel.
9. And if this hefty record of racially targeted practices were not enough to convince you that the Ferguson police department had a race problem, the Justice Department then gives you the emails that compare African Americans to monkeys.
Yep. That’s right. The racist stereotypes and opinions come out in full force over email. The Justice Department gives us a smattering of the sorts of nauseating jokes and opinions being bandied about the department. One email compares President Barack Obama to a chimpanzee. Another compares an African-American woman’s decision to seek an abortion as crime control. A third missive, sent in 2008, cautions that Obama won’t be in office long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”
That such jokes and stereotypes still hold currency today is a shameful thing. But what is even worse? That the Justice Department did not find evidence of anyone responding to these racist emails asking the sender to desist. Nor could the investigators find that supervisors had disciplined anyone for the remarks. Instead, the emails were more likely to be forwarded along to others than anything. Racism meets the listserv.
The long and short of the report is this: The Ferguson police have not done right by the African-American residents they are duty bound to protect. As the report notes:
The race-based disparities we have found are not isolated or aberrational; rather, they exist in nearly every aspect of Ferguson police and court operations.
There remains a tremendous amount to be done. And the Justice Department’s report provides a solid starting point for thinking through what sorts of policies, practices, and reforms could be implemented to break down this racialized divide.
Images: Getty Images (7)