Systemically Racist Police and Judicial Practices Found
On Wednesday, March 4, 2015, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) released two reports following investigations into the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by Ferguson, MO police officer, Darren Wilson; and a general investigation into whether race plays a role in policing and the judicial system in the city.
While the DOJ found no evidence that Officer Wilson acted unlawfully, and thus no basis for federal civil charges against him, they found that the context in which this tragedy played out is one of systemic police racism and harassment that violates several constitutional rights. In particular, the report states that the Ferguson Police Department (FPD) operates in a way that violates the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments. These guarantee, respectively, the right to freedom of speech and assembly; protection against illegal and unwarranted search and arrest, and from unreasonable force; and the right to due process and equal protection under the law.
Said Attorney General Eric Holder at a press conference announcing the findings, “Our investigation showed that Ferguson police officers routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force against them.” The investigation found that these and other practices are in part driven by pursuit of civic revenue via fines levied, and concluded that combined with racism, create a culture and practice of police conduct that regularly violate citizens’ constitutional rights, and federal law.
Among the notable findings that show clear evidence of racist police practices, the investigation found:
- Black residents are more than twice as likely than others to be searched during vehicle stops, but are found to actually possess illegal substances or items 26 percent less often than white drivers who are searched.
- Though black residents account for just 66 percent of the population of the city, they represent 85 percent of vehicle stops and 93 percent of arrests.
- Ninety percent of those who received a citation in the city were black, and rates were even more pronounced for the most minor crimes, like waling in the roadway (95 percent), and failure to comply (94 percent).
To conduct this investigation, members of The Civil Rights Division of the DOJ analyzed over 35,000 pages of police records; conducted interviews with city, police, and court officials; held meetings with members of the community; observed court sessions, and analyzed police data on stops, searches, and arrests.
In addition to finding that police regularly violate citizens’ constitutional rights and federal law, the investigation also found troubling violations at the municipal court. The court focuses “on revenue over public safety,” which leads to violations of the right to due process and equal protection guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The report states that these practices “exacerbat[e] the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices,” and “impos[e] particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty,” by levying excessive fines for minor offenses that “generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.”
Disturbingly, the investigation found that these malpractices among police and the judiciary are not doled out equally, but are overwhelmingly and unjustly directed at Ferguson’s black population. The report concludes, “Ferguson’s harmful court and police practices are due, at least in part, to intentional discrimination, as demonstrated by direct evidence of racial bias and stereotyping about African Americans by certain Ferguson police and municipal court officials.”
Hardly limited to Ferguson, the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ has opened more than 20 such investigations into police departments around the country during the five years that Attorney General Holder has been in office, which marks a more than two-fold increase over those conducted during the previous five years (this according to a documented titled “Police Reform and Accountability Accomplishments Under Attorney General Eric Holder,” available on the DOJ website).
Following investigations in which routine violations of constitutional rights and federal laws are found, the division enters into what is called a “consent decree” with the police department in question in order to facilitate necessary changes to culture and practice. The consent decree is an agreement between the division and a police department that stipulates what changes must be made and how–it is a way of forcing necessary change. If departments refuse the decree, the DOJ sues them.
There are currently nine active consent decrees with departments in places including New Orleans, Puerto Rico, Seattle, Portland (Oregon), Detroit, Virgin Islands, East Haven (Connecticut), Warren (Ohio), and Albuquerque. Decrees with Los Angeles PD and that of Washington, D.C. were completed and closed during the last three years.
In addition to Ferguson, the division has open investigations in Cleveland, Miami, Antelope Valley (with the Los Angeles County Sheriff), and Newark (New Jersey).
Now that the investigation of the police and municipal court of Ferguson is complete, the division will seek to enter a consent decree with each that will address a lengthy list of required changes that range from increasing training and supervision of officers, more effort to collect and analyze police data to identify and eliminate racial bias, emphasis on community engagement and deescalation rather than use of force, and an increase in diversity among the police force, among many others.
At the court, the division expects to see increased transparency, a simplification of bureaucratic process to benefit citizens, reduction of fine and bond amounts and expanded payment options, and careful attention to ensure the right to due process is met.
Hopefully, with a commitment to change at the local level and careful oversight by the DOJ Division of Civil Rights, much needed steps toward equality and justice will be taken in Ferguson over the coming years.