The widespread and crippling racial profiling by police of African-Americans in Ferguson, Mo., must be followed by immediate and far-reaching reforms.
The Justice Department on Wednesday released a report capping a six-month investigation that shows years of constitutional violations built on racial biases that corroded trust and fueled a growing anger in the mostly African-American suburb of St. Louis. The city exploded in protests and violence after the Aug. 9 fatal police shooting of unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown.
The Justice Department declined to file civil rights charges against former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death, saying the evidence did not support it. A state grand jury in November also declined to charge Wilson. Brown was black; Wilson, who resigned from the force in November, is white.
The report on the Police Department, however, showed a disturbing practice of police and city officials viewing African-Americans “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.” It shows an oppressive abuse of power and must serve as an object lesson for all law enforcement agencies.
“Ferguson uses its police department in large part as a collection agency for its municipal court,” the report said. “Ferguson’s municipal court issues arrest warrants at a rate that police officials have called, in internal emails, ‘staggering.’”
Ferguson’s 2011 general fund revenue of $11.44 million included $1.41 million in municipal fines and fees. That revenue continued to grow and was budgeted to top $2.6 million in 2014. Email from the police chief to the city manager boasted of municipal court revenue for 2012 surpassing “$2 million for the first time in history.” The city urged police to “bring in more money,” creating a crippling debt, loss of driver’s licenses, jobs and housing for blacks.
African-Americans, 67 percent of the city’s population of about 21,000 people, were the main targets of police.
From 2012 to 2014, blacks were involved in 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations and 93 percent of arrests. The report found that African-Americans were more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops but 26 percent less often than white drivers to be found to possess contraband. That’s not only inexcusable, it’s poor policing.
Blacks were more likely to receive multiple citations in a single stop. Some charges were “almost exclusively against African-Americans.” Blacks accounted for “95 percent of manner of walking in roadway charges” and 94 percent of all failure to comply charges. Brown was stopped for walking in the street.
Close to 90 percent of documented force used by Ferguson police was against African-Americans. Police dogs were a frequent weapon. “In every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the person bitten was African-American,” the report said. That is an abomination.
Email collected in the investigation from the city revealed stark and inexcusable prejudice, offensive racist jokes and blatant discrimination. The city had been operating as if the civil rights movement and laws against discrimination never existed.
The Justice Department recommends corrective actions. It should file a lawsuit against Ferguson if a settlement resulting in aggressive and major changes isn’t reached. The recommendations included training for police to shift from raising revenue to community engagement, real community policing, crime prevention, anti-discrimination practices and problem-solving.
Police hiring should focus on diversity starting at the highest ranks. Only four of the 54 sworn officers are black. Evaluations should emphasize service and not ticket quotas. Goals for officer deployment patterns and scheduling should aim for better crime prevention and to meet the community’s needs.
Ferguson needs a more transparent municipal court process. If needed, the state should step in to ensure due process and equal protection in the courts.
Ferguson currently represents some of the worst examples of racial profiling in the nation. If the Justice Department recommendations are followed, Ferguson can become an example to other cities of good policing, where all lives and public safety truly matter.