Federal civil rights investigation finds blatant, systemic racism in Ferguson Police Dept., but criminal probe finds no grounds to prosecute officer who killed Michael Brown
By Miriam Raftery
March 4, 2015 (Washington D.C.) – U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday announced results of two federal probes into the Ferguson, Missouri police department which drew national attention following the shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager. A criminal investigation found no grounds to prosecute Officer Darren Wilson, who killed the teen, Michael Brown. However a separate civil rights investigation found systemic racism in the department and mandates changes.
The Justice Department has ordered corrective action. Holder emphasized in a press statement, “Let me be clear: the United States Department of Justice reserves all its rights and abilities to force compliance and implement basic change.”
Holder called findings of the civil rights report “searing”, adding, “this investigation found a community that was deeply polarized; a community where deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents.”
The investigation found that “local authorities consistently approached law enforcement not as a means for protecting public safety, but as a way to generate revenue” and further, that “both policing and municipal court practices were found to disproportionately harm African American residents.” The emphasis on revenue generation through policing has fostered “unconstitutional practices” at nearly every level of Ferguson’s law enforcement system, he added.
Moreover, Holder said, “this harm frequently appears to stem, at least in part, from racial bias – both implicit and explicit. And a community where all of these conditions, unlawful practices, and constitutional violations have not only severely undermined the public trust, eroded police legitimacy, and made local residents less safe – but created an intensely charged atmosphere where people feel under assault and under siege by those charged to serve and protect them.”
Police commonly charged people with multiple violations for the same conduct, with officers competing to see who could issue the most citations during a single stop. Fines and fees from these stops amount to the second largest revenue source for the county, after sales tax.
The Justice Department found that 90% of use of force incidents by Ferguson Police were against African American people. From October 2012 to October 2014, African-Americans were twice as likely as white residents to be searched during a routine traffic stop, even though they were 26 percent less likely to be carrying contraband. Though 67 percent of the population is African-Americans, 94% of the police force is white. African-Americans accounted for over 85% of all traffic stops, 85% of all charges filed, and over 90% of those charged with a discretionary offense described as “manner of walking along roadway.” During the same period, 35 African-Americans received five or more citations simultaneously, while zero whites had this occur.
Police dogs were deployed only against African-American suspects—even non-violent offenders and minors. Tasers were also used on nonviolent offenders.
Ferguson police routinely violated the Fourth Amendment, stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probably cause, and using unreasonable force, the investigation concluded. The department’s own records showed officers often infringed on residents’ First Amendment Rights, according to Holder, including the right to record police activities. A boy who videotaped his mother’s traffic stop was arrested for no legitimate reason, for example. Another man who recorded his traffic stop was arrested by an officer who told a jail official that the man was arrested because he “watches CNBC too much about his rights.”
E-mails revealed numerous blatantly racist comments. After President Barack Obama’s 2008 election, one e-mail depicted the president as a chimpanzee and another stated he would not last long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.” Others stereotyped racial minorities as shiftless welfare recipients, according to an article on Salon which documents some of the most “horrifying revelations” of the investigation.
A man sitting in his car after playing basketball at a park was approached by an officer who accused the man of being a pedophile. He was forced to undergo a pat-down search without probable cause and when the man cited his constitutional rights, the officer drew his gun, pointed it at the man’s head and arrested him on eight counts, causing the man to lose his job, Holder reported.
“Unfortunately, this event appears to have been anything but an isolated incident,” he said, adding that such incidents have led to a deep and deserved mistrust of police by the community in Ferguson.
Those policing practices harm African American residents and moreover, Holder concluded, “our review of the evidence found no alternative explanation for the disproportionate impact on African American residents other than implicit and explicit racial bias.”
The Justice Department issued immediate and specific recommendations for the Ferguson Police Department and the Municipal Court. These include implementation of a robust system of true community policing; increased tracking, review and analysis of Ferguson Police Department stop, search, ticketing and arrest practices; increased civilian involvement in police decision-making; and the development of mechanisms to effectively respond to allegations of officer misconduct. They also involve changes to the municipal court system including modifications to bond amounts and detention procedures; an end to the use of arrest warrants as a means of collecting owed fines and fees; and compliance with due process requirements. In addition
Holder noted, “Ensuring meaningful, sustainable and verifiable reform will require that these and other measures be part of a court-enforceable remedial process that includes involvement from community stakeholders as well as independent oversight in order to remedy the conduct we have identified, to address the underlying culture we have uncovered, and to restore and rebuild the trust that has been so badly eroded.”
The Attorney General added that as the brother of a retired police officer, “I know that the overwhelming majority of America’s brave men and women in law enforcement do their jobs honorably, with integrity, and often at great personal risk” He concluded, “It is in great part for their sake – and for their safety – that we must seek to rebuild trust and foster mutual understanding in Ferguson and in all communities where suspicion has been allowed to fester. Negative practices by individual law enforcement officers and individual departments present a significant danger not only to their communities, but also to committed and hard-working public safety officials around the country who perform incredibly challenging jobs with unwavering professionalism and uncommon valor.
The Obama administration in recent months has also announced administrative proposals to help heal mistrust, from a National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, to a historic new Task Force on 21st Century Policing – which will provide “strong, federal support to law enforcement at every level, on a scale not seen since the Johnson Administration,” said Holder, who has traveled to major cities convening roundtable discussions aimed at “building trust and engagement between law enforcement, civil rights, youth and community leaders from coast to coast.”