The Ferguson Police Department engages in a pattern of systemic racial bias, according to a new report released Wednesday by the US Department of Justice.
The report outlined stunning racial disparities in both police traffic stops and use of force, none of which could be explained by "any difference in the rate at which people of different races violate the law." The Justice Department concluded "that these disparities occur, at least in part, because of unlawful bias against and stereotypes about African Americans."
"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," Attorney General Eric Holder, who heads the Justice Department, said in a statement. "Now that our investigation has reached its conclusion, it is time for Ferguson’s leaders to take immediate, wholesale, and structural corrective action."
The Justice Department report comes more than six months after former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who is white, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old. The incident set off protests around the country about racial disparities in police use of force and the criminal justice system. Now, the investigation inspired by the shooting could lead the Ferguson Police Department to radical reforms.
Ferguson police disproportionately stop and use force against black residents
The Justice Department's investigation found a pattern of racial disparities among Ferguson police, from use of force to traffic stops. The report argued these disparities can only be explained, at least in part, because of unlawful bias and stereotypes against African Americans.
The report noted that, although black people make up about 67 percent of Ferguson's population, 88 percent of documented uses of force by Ferguson police from 2010 to August 2014 were against African Americans. In the 14 police canine bite cases for which racial data was available, the people bitten were black.
There were similar racial disparities in traffic stops. From 2012 to 2014, 85 percent of people stopped, 90 percent of people who received a citation, and 93 percent of people arrested were black. Black drivers were more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be searched during vehicle stops, but 26 percent less likely to be found with contraband.
Some people's interactions with police turned downright abusive, as the report described:
We spoke with one African-American man who, in August 2014, had an argument in his apartment to which FPD officers responded, and was immediately pulled out of the apartment by force. After telling the officer, "you don't have a reason to lock me up," he claims the officer responded: "N*****, I can find something to lock you up on." When the man responded, "good luck with that," the officer slammed his face into the wall, and after the man fell to the floor, the officer said, "don't pass out motherf****r because I'm not carrying you to my car."
Small towns like Ferguson often rely on excessive policing for local budget revenue. A 2014 report from ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit that provides legal representation to the poor and homeless in the St. Louis area, found that the Ferguson Municipal Court resolved three warrants and 1.5 cases for each household in the city in 2013. The high number of cases added up: revenue from fines and court fees made up about 10 percent of Ferguson's budget that year.
"I can't tell you what's going on in the mind of a police officer but, in the mind of my clients, they're being pulled over because they're black," Thomas Harvey, executive director and co-founder of ArchCity Defenders, told Vox's Sarah Kliff in August. "They're being pulled over so the city can generate revenue."
The Justice Department doesn't need to prove that the stops were racially motivated. All the feds need to show is that the Ferguson police's actions have a disproportionate impact on certain groups. But the report certainly paints a scathing picture of a police department mired in systemic racial biases.
Police and court officials exchanged racist emails
The Justice Department uncovered at least seven emails with outright racist jokes in them, all of which come from current employees and were apparently sent during work hours:
- A November 2008 email said President Barack Obama won't be president for long because "what black man holds a steady job for four years."
- A March 2010 email mocked African Americans with horrible stereotypes about their families and how they speak. One line of the email read, "I be so glad that dis be my last child support payment! Month after month, year after year, all dose payments!"
- An April 2011 email depicted President Obama as a chimpanzee.
- A May 2011 email said, "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.'"
- A June 2011 email said a man wanted to obtain "welfare" for his dogs because they are "mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can't speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddies are."
- An October 2011 email had a photo of a bare-chested group of dancing women, apparently in Africa, with the caption, "Michelle Obama's High School Reunion."
- A December 2011 email made jokes based off offensive stereotypes about Muslims.
The Justice Department found no evidence that any of the police and court officials who engaged in these emails were ever disciplined. The investigation also found no indication that any official asked the sender to stop sending such emails, or any proof that the emails were reported. "Instead, the emails were usually forwarded along to others," the report stated.
Darren Wilson faces no charges for Michael Brown's death
Although the Ferguson Police Department will likely face major consequences from the Justice Department's findings, a grand jury didn't and the federal government won't indict Wilson, the officer who killed Brown on August 9, on criminal charges.
A separate Justice Department investigation into whether Wilson violated Brown's civil rights during the shooting resulted in no charges.
To land a conviction on those charges, the federal government would have to prove Wilson willfully violated Brown's civil rights by shooting him — a very high legal bar to climb, since the intent would be very difficult to prove. Prosecutors would have to show, the New York Times explained, that Wilson knew it was wrong to open fire but did so anyway.
The lack of charges against Wilson means the Justice Department's investigation into the Ferguson Police Department — and any changes the report forces — will likely be the biggest and perhaps only legal consequences of the Brown shooting.
Although Wilson won't stand in court on criminal charges for killing Brown, the shooting helped expose racial disparities within the police department he once worked for.