[DISCLAIMER: THE FOLLOWING POST IS SOLELY ABOUT THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT’S FINDINGS IN THEIR INVESTIGATIONS IN FERGUSON, MO., AND ALL COMMENTARY ADDRESSES THE SITUATION IN FERGUSON ALONE.]
To everyone who said Ferguson wasn’t about race, the Justice Department begs to differ. Yesterday, the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division just released their investigation into the Ferguson Police Department–and it is worse than we imagined.
Only a few months ago, city streets across America and the avenues of the internet alike ignited in protest over the death of Michael Brown, a teenager killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. As we all know, Wilson was not indicted for the teen’s death, leading much of the nation to rise into an uproar.
But had justice been served? Was Brown profiled and his civil rights violated? Or, as the court found, were Darren Wilson’s actions justified, excused by self-defense? The opinions were many and almost everyone with a social media account took to their preferred platform to speak their minds. We were a whole nation involved in a heated conversation and even captured the attention of the world at large. Many international news stations covered the story constantly, using it as evidence of America’s inherent racism and inability to police itself.
I saw a lot of negativity, hate, and blatant racism on my Facebook newsfeed in those days. It made me furious. I acknowledge that I am one tiny person in the large sea that this event has affected, but I can honestly say that the conversation around Ferguson changed my life. One particularly upsetting comment I read targeting black children struck a nerve, fueling my fire to return my career to the world of educational nonprofit work (I now manage education services for at-risk students). It also inspired me to start this blog.
Meanwhile, the case took on a meaning larger than itself–it grew to represent the reality of race relations in America and shed light on police brutality. Through it all, the citizens of Ferguson protested, and more stories came out about how the police had treated minority community members unfairly for years.
Now, we have the final word. Yesterday, March 4th, the Justice Department released two reports, one on the Michael Brown shooting and one investigating the general practices of the FPD.
Again, the investigation into the shooting did not find enough evidence to indict Officer Wilson with criminal charges.
“Even if Wilson was mistaken in his interpretation of Brown’s conduct, the fact that others interpreted that conduct the same way as Wilson precludes a determination that he acted with a bad purpose to disobey the law. The same is true even if Wilson could be said to have acted with poor judgement in the manner in which he first interacted with Brown, or in pursuing Brown after the incident at the SUV. These are matters of policy and procedure that do not rise to the level of a Constitutional violation and thus cannot support a criminal prosecution.”
–Department of Justice Report Regarding the Criminal Investigation into the Shooting Death of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson
Though we all must accept the investigation’s findings, the overall story doesn’t really stop there.
In the second report, the Justice Department reveals the ugly innards of the FPD and explores the racially-biased policies of the city’s officials at large. I spent last night reviewing the report because I do think it is important to get the information straight from the source and avoid media bias. You can read this post and commentary to find the answers to the five most burning questions I had or read the full report for yourself. I have included page numbers on all quotes so that if you have doubts about my usage, you can check out the context firsthand.
1. What negative practices, if any, were at work within the FPD?
“FPD’s approach to law enforcement, shaped by the City’s pressure to raise revenue, resulted in a pattern and practice of constitutional violations” (p.15).
Aha–from “Protect and Serve” to “Fine and Collect.” The resounding message was that the FPD valued money over public safety. Further proof? “Officers told us that some compete to see who can issue the largest number of citations during a single [traffic] stop” (p.14). Sigh. But–it wasn’t all on individual police officers. Following the example of the City Manager and the Police Chief, this culture was also encouraged by their immediate supervisors, who imposed disciplinary measures for those who did not issue enough citations, and their job performance evaluations, which included a large emphasis on meeting a high citation benchmark each month.
This makes me wonder–when cops are explicitly pressured by city officials to make money rather than protect citizens, can we still consider them public servants?
When they regularly violate the constitutional rights they are supposed to be defending, I’d have to say no.
“Officers violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force. Officers frequently infringe on residents’ First Amendments rights, interfering with their right to record police activities and making enforcement decisions based on the content of individuals’ expression” (p. 15).
Even scarier? The Justice Department also found the FPD’s use of force to be unconstitutional, discovering a pattern of frequent taser and canine use over less harmful force practices. They also revealed that these unnecessary measures disproportionately affected African-American citizens (90% of all use of force was for this demographic group) and were even employed on people with disabilities and young students (p.28).
2. How did the officers view the citizens of the communities they served?
“Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, 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” (p. 2).
So, in their minds, it’s not like they were taking money from regular citizens, but potential offenders and criminals.
Like, for example, the gentleman who was sitting in his car one day. He couldn’t have been an innocent man getting some cool AC after a basketball game on a public court (which he was); instead, he must have been a pedophile looking for trouble. True story: an officer approached the man, accused him of being a child predator, commanded him to get out of the car to perform a pat down, then wanted to search the man’s car. The man objected–A CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT–and was then arrested at gunpoint and held on eight charges. The most unbelievable one? ‘Making a False Declaration’–because he initially identified himself as his nickname instead of his full name, like “Ben” for “Benjamin.” The man lost his job because of the charges.
The findings are simple yet harsh: To most officers, people stopped being citizens worthy of respect and instead turned into dollar signs or potential threats.
3. What evidence is there of racial bias?
There is so much a single quote doesn’t cover it. From blatantly racist emails that were circulated throughout the police department (find a more readable summary of them here) to the overwhelmingly disproportionate arrests of African American residents, the bias of stereotyping ran rampant in the FPD.
This evidence of bias and stereotyping, together with evidence that Ferguson has long recognized but failed to correct the consistent racial disparities caused by its police and court practices, demonstrates that the discriminatory effects of Ferguson’s conduct are driven at least in part by discriminatory intent in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment” (p.5)
The statistics included in the report are outrageous. You can find them listed here, or, of course, in the report itself.
And before anyone has the chance to use the racist attitude of “but black people commit more crime,” that I heard so much of a few months ago:
“The race-based disparities created by Ferguson’s law enforcement practices cannot be explained by chance or by any difference in the rates at which people of different races adhere to the law. The disparities occur, at least in part, because Ferguson law enforcement practices are directly shaped and perpetuated by racial bias” (p.70).
4. Where did all the tension between citizens and police officers come from?
“Our investigation has shown that distrust of the Ferguson Police Department is longstanding and largely attributable to Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement. This approach results in patterns of unnecessarily aggressive and at times unlawful policing; reinforces the harm of discriminatory stereotypes; discourages a culture of accountability; and neglects community engagement” (p.6).
Explicit verbal harassment. Threats and intimidation. Complaints ignored by administration. No positive community engagement. Is there even a wonder why citizens did not trust the police?
There are even disgusting and frequent instances of the officers using true moments to provide help and protection as opportunities to fine and arrest those who called them in the first place. Imagine going through a car wreck that severely injured your girlfriend, dialing 911, and then being arrested and hit with 5 violations for trying to stay by her side until ambulances arrive. Or calling 911 to report domestic abuse, then being arrested yourself for a minor housing violation the officers noticed while they were supposed to be interviewing you and providing protection. These are only two stories of many outlined in the report. If I went through either of those scenarios, I would probably never dial 911 again, even if I was in a true emergency.
Why have police when their first interest is no longer protection?
5. What does all this have to do with the courts?
In Ferguson, most cases are cited as violations of the city’s municipal code, rather than under state laws, leading them to the municipal court, which, for all intents and purposes, is considered part of the police department–the Chief of Police is even the supervisor. Naturally, this complicates things. Remember that “Fine and Collect” mentality? Yeah. . . same story here.
“The Ferguson municipal court handles most charges brought by the FPD, and does so not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue (p.45).
“The court’s practices also impose unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American individuals, and run counter to public safety” (p.3).
A court without justice is not a court. Reading this reminded me of the trial in Alice in Wonderland, with its non-sensical “sentence first, verdict afterwards” refrain. Except that was REAL life for Ferguson residents with pending court cases.
In a nutshell–Ferguson courts went against common practice by imposing extremely strict punishments on minor violations like failing to pay parking and speeding tickets. While state law mandates a temporary license suspension for these issues, Ferguson piled on even more fees and routinely issued arrest warrants for these offenses, creating a cycle that abused the community’s most vulnerable population. Those already combating poverty were fined into debt, stripped of their license, and made to serve jail time, losing their employment or housing along the way. This isn’t just inhumane–it’s bad business. How can a city thrive when its people are treated in this way?
In summary: The report provided proof that the protestors were right–a greater systemic cycle of oppression towards African Americans in particular was undoubtedly at work in Ferguson. I think it is fair to say that these systems most certainly played their part the day of the shooting as the atmosphere itself was one of hostility, fueled by the ongoing unconstitutional practices and procedures of the FPD. And though the Justice Department ultimately agreed with the decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson–the FPD, city officials, and courts are far from innocent.
I plan to follow up this post with Ferguson Part Two: What Now? Check back for that post later this week. It will discuss some takeaways from the situation, the changes being made, and some of the positive repercussions that will hopefully be inspired by the investigation. The first step to parading is understanding the systems of injustice so we can work against them. Thanks for reading.