In September 2014, the United States Department of Justice opened an investigation into the killing of Michael Brown, as well as a larger one into the Ferguson Police Department. While the protests spread across the nation, the DOJ was conducting interviews with police, city officials and residents. They reviewed thousands of pages of police reports and court records, as well as city documents. Investigators also analyzed police data, and observed court proceedings and officers while on duty.
On Wednesday, the DOJ issued their final findings in a 105-page report. In short, they found that the Ferguson Police Department was poorly trained and racially-biased. They also found their policing unconstitutional and profit driven.
Ferguson protestors have said since the moment of Michael Brown’s killing that this was not just about his death. It was about the years of police harassment and violence that has disproportionately affected the black residents of the city. With a 25 percent poverty rate, the poorest residents were the hardest hit with numerous citations and subsequent fines and court fees. Unable to get help from city officials or the courts, they took to the streets to express their frustration with tears, chants and coordinated protests.
As Eric Holder said on Wednesday, “Some of those protestors were right.”
The investigation found that Ferguson policing was intentionally discriminatory. They discovered policing practices that both “reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes.” From 2012-2014 African Americans made up 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, and 93 percent of arrests made by FPD officers. It is statistically impossible for it not to have been deliberate with 67 percent of the residents being African American. Stops and searches of white residents were more likely to find contraband than with searches involving black citizens. This showed that officers used race as a decision when determining who to stop.
The racial profiling continued when issuing citations. From 2012-2014, four or more citations were issued at once to African-Americans on 73 occasions. For non-blacks, four or more were issued only twice in two years. It cannot be explained, as Ferguson police and city officials claim, that there is a difference in the behavior of the races. For example, a common citation is “Manner of Walking in Roadway” in which a person is cited for, well, walking. Ninety-five percent of these citations were issued to African-Americans. Further evidence of the racist attitudes could be found in emails shared between police and city officials, which were filled with racial stereotypes and insults to President Obama.
Police interactions repeatedly violated residents’ First and Fourth Amendment rights. Failure to comply citations would often result from a person exercising these rights. The DOJ found several instances where not only were the resulting searches in violation of the Fourth Amendment, the stopping and interrogating without cause was unconstitutional. If the person refused to identify themselves or answer questions, they would be arrested for failing to comply. The city’s municipal code, as written, is classified as a “stop and identify” law and is clearly unconstitutional.
Encounters would escalate, even if the initial stop was lawful. When people would try to record the interaction, the police would demand that they stop claiming that recording was a danger to the officer. Under the First Amendment, citizens are legally allowed to record officers. Any resistance, including verbal, would result in an arrest. Again, the First Amendment protects a citizen’s right to talk back, even if it’s rude or disrespectful. Escalation to use of excessive force was often punitive and used against women, the mentally ill, as well as children. In one case, a police dog was released on a 14-year-old African American boy who was hiding under the stairs. As the dog bit into his arm, a police officer placed his foot on his head. The boy reported that the officers laughed about it in his presence.
Canines were exclusively used on African Americans.
The officers’ lack of training is a big part of why these incidences escalate. Basic police training should have prevented most of these incidences from ending up in arrests or use of excessive force. However, officers were never disciplined and their actions were, in fact, condoned. Complaints were dismissed by superiors. In the rare cases of a commander admonishing an officer for over-ticketing, his superior would remind him that he could not punish an officer for doing his job. The main job for the entire Ferguson Police Department was to generate revenue.
After the FPD issues the citations, the municipal courts created additional ways to increase the cost. With confusing rules that were rarely explained, people would find themselves paying thousands of dollars on a $100 fine. The court would refuse to allow partial payments or community service. Police would use the failure to pay these fines as a reason to stop and arrest them again.
The fines and fees residents complain about are a result of a directive from the City to focus on revenue instead of public policy. In 2010, this resulted in 10 percent of the city’s general revenue coming from citations and the subsequent court fees. This amount has steadily increased each year, and is written into the budget. Emails show that when forecasting the next year’s budget, city officials would contact the police chief to see if it was possible for officers to increase the number of citations issued. This would be reinforced by officers being judged on how many citations they issued. The city’s 2015 budget expects more than $3 million of its $13 million general fund to come from these fees and fines.
It is unclear where Ferguson will go from here. The DOJ included a long list of reforms that need to be accomplished. The process will result in years of work and millions of dollars, a huge investment for a 54 person force. If the city refuses, they could risk a lawsuit. The only response thus far from the city was an announcement from the mayor that one officer had been fired over the racist emails, and another two had been placed on leave.