Ferguson: The Department of Justice Speaks

It’s time to Break It Down!

Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, August 9, 2014. Wilson, 28 at the time, a white Ferguson police officer, shot Brown, an 18-year old black teen, after a struggle ensued following a disagreement about jaywalking. The specific circumstances of the encounter, which also involved Brown’s 22-year old friend, Dorian Johnson, were in dispute. Ultimately, after a several days of unrest, and months of tension within the Ferguson community, the Prosecuting Attorney for St. Louis County, Robert P. McCulloch, made a sobering, but not surprising announcement. On November 24th, McCulloch revealed that the Grand Jury, empaneled to determine whether there was probable cause to charge Officer Wilson, found there was none.

There were a number of reasons why conventional wisdom held that the officer would not be charged. Among other things it had been argued that the prosecutor has inundated the Grand Jury with more information that was necessary, or than would normally be provided to such a panel. The Prosecuting Attorney has a history that many in the local community felt rendered him biased. A black perpetrator killed his father. Whether related or not, he has a history of negative findings against blacks involved with the St. Louis criminal justice system. In a community that is over 67% black, there were three black policemen on a force of over 50 officers. Moreover, the vast number of stops, use of force, arrests, fines, and citations were black. To be clear, the percentage in every case was much greater than that of blacks in the population, in some cases, 20 to 25% more.

In September, Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General, initiated a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation of Ferguson’s police department to study whether its officers routinely profiled blacks, or showed a pattern of excessive force. That investigation is complete and will be released today. Yesterday some preliminary findings were released. We know the study will say among other things, officers in Ferguson routinely violated the constitutional rights of the city’s residents, discriminated against African Americans, and applied racial stereotypes.

As noted, Ferguson is one-third white, or more directly stated above, 67% black. The Justice Department found that crime statistics over the past couple of years paint a compelling story. Parts of that message includes:

  • Blacks account for 85% of traffic stops
  • Blacks account for 90% of tickets issued
  • Blacks account for 93% of arrests
  • Blacks account for 95% of jaywalking arrests (which often hinge on police discretion)
  • Black driver were twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops, but 26% less likely to have contraband
  • Blacks account for 88% of persons against whom force was used

The picture the report paints is difficult to debate rationally. However, some officials, including a former Mayor, currently a candidate for a Council seat are doing just that. Brian Fletcher, the City’s Mayor from 2005 to 2011 complained that the DOJ appeared to be searching for “a scapegoat.” He argued further:

  • “The city population might be 67 percent black, but that is not necessarily a fair comparison for enforcement statistics. Many of the surrounding communities have African-American populations of more than 80 percent, and many of those people are drawn to greater shopping opportunities in Ferguson. As a result, Ferguson’s daily black population would be higher than the census reflects. “I don’t know that the DOJ took that into consideration, I don’t know how that proves bias.”

I am not sure how he uses this particular rationale to defend the statistic that finds black drivers twice as likely to be searched, but 26% less likely to be carrying contraband. Of course, I am confident he will give it the old college try.

It is important to note not everyone is so impervious to the data picture. Current Mayor, James Knowles III, who was among the officials briefed yesterday, said, “It was encouraging to me that there were discussions about how we might move forward together and amicably address these issues.” Let’s hear it for Mayor Knowles…Mr. Fletcher, not so much.

The racial disparity found in Ferguson policing was so stark that the DOJ concluded there was only one explanation:

The Ferguson Police Department was routinely violating the constitutional rights of its black residents.

Tomorrow’s report will cite violations of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments, according to officials. Racial bias is so ingrained, the report said, that Ferguson officials circulated racist jokes on their government email accounts.

The report is based on six months of investigation, and provides a glimpse into the roots of the tensions that boiled over after Michael Brown was killed in August. The report describes a city in which police used force almost exclusively on blacks, and a place where blacks were regularly stopped without probable cause.

Moreover, despite former Mayor Fletcher’s push back on the data findings, racial bias was so thoroughly ingrained that Ferguson officials circulated racist jokes on their government email accounts. Two in particular, apparently written by Ferguson police and municipal court officials appear below:

One, from November 2008, said that Barack Obama could not be president for four years because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”

Another, from May 2011, read: “An African-American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination. Two weeks later she received a check for $5,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said, ‘Crimestoppers.’”

The report will say that in Ferguson’s municipal court, blacks were less likely than others to have their cases dismissed by a judge, far more likely to have a warrant issued in their cases and more likely to be arrested during traffic stops because of outstanding warrants.

The report will also say that Ferguson has a pattern of putting revenue over public safety, in violation of the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal process protections, by collecting thousands of dollars in fines on those living below or near poverty. It notes further that since 2010, Ferguson courts have collected more than $442,000 for failure-to-appear fines, and that use of that charge was discontinued last year.

Federal investigators spent about 100 person days investigating the department, perused 35,000 pages of records, and interviewed city leaders as well as conducted hundreds of in-person or phone interviews with residents.

On December 1, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that the federal government would spend $75 million on body cameras for law enforcement officers, as one of the measures taken in response to the shooting. Without question, the DOJ investigation and subsequent findings is about much more than the killing of Michael Brown. Yet, it is equally clear, the young man is a martyr for justice. Without his untimely demise, is unclear how much longer the majority of the Ferguson community would have suffered the indignities and injustices of a freewheeling police department that consistently treated blacks shabbily…at best. So, on this day, “Ferguson: The Department of Justice Speaks!”

I’m done; holla back!

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1 thought on “Ferguson: The Department of Justice Speaks

  1. Pingback: Eric Holder/Loretta Lynch: The Contrarians’ Confounding Conundrum | BREAK IT DOWN!

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