The Justice Department on Tuesday released a scathing report, saying the Ferguson, Missouri police department engaged in a broad pattern of conduct that routinely violated the constitutional rights of African-Americans.
The DOJ findings include the following: (1) a pattern and practice of disproportionate stops and arrests of blacks without probable cause, (2) unreasonable force, (3) racially biased handling of warrants by municipal courts, and (4) a pattern of focusing on revenue over public safety that violated the rights of poor, black residents.
As part of the investigation, federal investigators also uncovered email evidence of further racial bias and stereotyping by both members of the Ferguson police department and municipal court officials. The email evidence includes racist jokes, one that referenced President Barack Obama and another that referred to a refund a black woman received for an abortion as a credit from “Crimestoppers.”
The report comes six months after a white Ferguson police officer shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown Jr., an incident that drew widespread scrutiny and brought national attention to the long history of abuses allegedly committed by the city’s overwhelmingly white police force against its majority black population.
Shortly after Brown’s killing by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, the Justice Department announced parallel investigations into both the incident itself and the entire Ferguson police department.
A grand jury in November declined to indict Wilson. He resigned from the police department shortly thereafter.
While there has been little expectation that the Justice Department would file federal civil rights charges against Wilson – the bar for such charges is set extremely high – a finding that the police department engaged in some form of racially biased policing seemed more likely.
African-Americans make up nearly 70% of the city’s population but only about 3% of Ferguson’s police department. Residents have alleged physical abuse, unfair and random stops and searches. In 2013, the state’s attorney general found that black motorists were twice as likely as white drivers to be stopped by police, despite being less likely to be carrying contraband.
In 88% of documented incidents in which police used force against someone, that person was black. In each of the 14 cases involving someone being bitten by a police dog, that person was black.
And the poor treatment didn’t end on the street. Blacks in Ferguson were 68% less likely than others to have their cases dismissed by the municipal judge and were disproportionately likely to have a warrant issued against them, according to the report. As recently as 2013, 96% of those arrested on outstanding warrants were black.
But even more than the treatment they received once stopped, the Justice Department’s report found that blacks were used in the criminal justice system to buoy the city’s economy and balance its budget. The practices uncovered by federal investigators have violated residents’ constitutional rights to due process and equal protection under the law.
The DOJ’s report found that blacks were also subject to unfair stops and arrest for minor offenses like “manner of walking” in a roadway.
Since 2010, the local court has collected more revenue for “failure to appear in court” charges than any other charge, according to the report. The court collected $442,901 in fines for such violations, accounting for nearly 25% of total court revenue that year.
The enormity of the net cast by law enforcement and court officials upon the city’s black community is staggering. As of late 2014, more than 16,000 Ferguson residents – out of a population of 21,000 – had outstanding warrants issued by the city’s municipal courts. The vast majority of those warrants stem from cases involving minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, and housing code violations, according to the report.
These findings, long known by local activists, lawyers and many black residents, underscore the tainted relationship between blacks and police. Many have pointed to the fact that initial reports claimed Officer Wilson stopped Brown and a friend for little more than walking down the center of the street.