The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has released the horrifying details of its investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department and municipal courts system, finding that officials in the St. Louis suburb routinely violated the constitutional rights of African-American residents.
The report is the result of an investigation that began in September 2014, after former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who is white, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old. The failure to arrest Wilson — and the militarized response to protestors who demanded an indictment — set off months of demonstrations against racial disparities in police use of force and the criminal justice system.
To get to the bottom of the distrust between the FPD and black Ferguson residents that provided a backdrop for the protests, Justice Department representatives conducted hundreds of interviews with city and court officials, observed Ferguson Municipal Court proceedings, attended community meetings, and scoured police records and data on police searches, stops, and arrests to collect the data.
The damning evidence uncovered leaves no question that the distrust and allegations of police racism were accurate. Here are the report's most outrageous findings:
1) In Ferguson, race had everything to do with who was stopped by police, and whom they used force against
- African Americans made up 67 percent of the population, but between 2012 and 2014, they made up 85 percent of the people pulled over by police.
- Between 2012 and 2014, black drivers were twice as likely to have their cars searched, but they were 26 percent less likely to have contraband.
- Between 2010 and August 2014, 88 percent of the documented use of force was against African Americans.
- Every time a person was bitten by a police dog, the person was black.
- The FPD brought certain charges almost exclusively against African Americans. For example, in 2013 black residents made up a full 95 percent of manner of walking in roadway charges, and 94 percent of all failure to comply charges.
- Between 2011 and 2013, African-American drivers got 72 percent of the speeding tickets when radars or laser verification were used, but when tickets were based on officers' personal observations, they got 80 percent of the tickets.
2) None of this could be explained by any differences in the rate at which people of different races violate the law
- It's not just that black people commit more crimes. "Our investigation has revealed that these disparities occur, at least in part, because of unlawful bias against and stereotypes about African Americans," the report concluded.
3) Police and municipal officials — the same people responsible for carrying out justice — sent racist emails, and not one person objected
Police and municipal court officials —the same people responsible for carrying out justice — made repeated racists jokes about black people (and Muslims). Here's a list from the report:
- A November 2008 email about Barack Obama read "what black man holds a steady job for four years."
- A 2011 message 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 March 2010 email mocking African Americans in a story involving child support read: "I be so glad that dis be my last child support payment! Month after month, year after year, all dose payments!"
- A June 2011 email described a man seeking 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 included 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 included jokes that are based on offensive stereotypes about Muslims.
Each of these emails was received by supervisors of FPD's patrol and court operations, who are responsible for making sure that officers obey laws, uphold the constitution, and treat all people equally. According to the report, there was no evidence that anyone ever asked that the senders of these emails refrain from sending racist messages, nor was there any evidence that anyone was ever disciplined as a result of them. Rather, the emails were often forwarded to others.
The racism expressed in the emails was mirrored by police actions that residents reported to Justice Department representatives. The report describes one person's experiences like this:
"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." Another young man described walking with friends in July 2014 past a group of FPD officers who shouted racial epithets at them as they passed.
4) Police arrested black residents when they were trying to care for loved ones who were hurt
The report concedes that it is "both essential and difficult to keep distraught family from being in close proximity to their loved ones on the scene of an accident," but says, "there is rarely a need to arrest and jail them rather than, at most, detain them on the scene."
Yet investigators found that during tragedies the FPD made multiple arrests or issued multiple citations, mostly against black people.
Here's one example:
In one instance from May 2014, for example, a man rushed to the scene of a car accident involving his girlfriend, who was badly injured and bleeding profusely when he arrived. He approached and tried to calm her. When officers arrived they treated him rudely, according to the man, telling him to move away from his girlfriend, which he did not want to do. They then immediately proceeded to handcuff and arrest him, which, officers assert, he resisted. EMS and other officers were not on the scene during this arrest, so the accident victim remained unattended, bleeding from her injuries, while officers were arresting the boyfriend. Officers charged the man with five municipal code violations (Resisting Arrest, Disorderly Conduct, Assault on an Officer, Obstructing Government Operations, and Failure to 82 Comply) and had his vehicle towed and impounded.
In an incident from 2013, a woman sought to reach her fiancé, who was in a car accident. After she refused to stay on the sidewalk as the officer ordered, she was arrested and jailed.
5) Officers abused their power and completely disregarded the law, and the FPD culture and supervisors supported them in doing so
According to the report, FPD officers demanded compliance regardless of whether they had the legal authority to do so, treated free speech by citizens as unlawful disobedience, and interpreted innocent movements as physical threats. Worse, their supervisors did little to force officers to follow the law and failed to provide meaningful responses when civilians complained of misconduct. Here's a story that provided an example of how this attitude played out:
"[I]n the summer of 2012, a 32-year-old African-American man sat in his car cooling off after playing basketball in a Ferguson public park. An officer pulled up behind the man's car, blocking him in, and demanded the man's Social Security number and identification. Without any cause, the officer accused the man of being a pedophile, referring to the presence of children in the park, and ordered the man out of his car for a pat-down, although the officer had no reason to believe the man was armed. The officer also asked to search the man's car. The man objected, citing his constitutional rights. In response, the officer arrested the man, reportedly at gunpoint, charging him with eight violations of Ferguson's municipal code. One charge, Making a False Declaration, was for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., "Mike" instead of "Michael"), and an address which, although legitimate, was different from the one on his driver's license. Another charge was for not wearing a seat belt, even though he was seated in a parked car. The officer also charged the man both with having an expired operator's license, and with having no operator's license in his possession. The man told us that, because of these charges, he lost his job as a contractor with the federal government that he had held for years."
6) The municipal court was out to make money for the city, and its decisions were motivated by this goal versus public safety
- DOJ investigators found that the municipal court "primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City's financial interests" in a way that violated the Constitution.
- The Court, they concluded, issued arrest warrants not when public safety required them, but in response to missed courts appearances, and required fine payments.
- These practices overwhelmingly affected black citizens. Here's how they played out in the case of one African-American woman:
We spoke, for example, with an African-American woman who has a still-pending case stemming from 2007, when, on a single occasion, she parked her car illegally. She received two citations and a $151 fine, plus fees. The woman, who experienced financial difficulties and periods of homelessness over several years, was charged with seven Failure to Appear offenses for missing court dates or fine payments on her parking tickets between 2007 and 2010. For each Failure to Appear, the court issued an arrest warrant and imposed new fines and fees. From 2007 to 2014, the woman was arrested twice, spent six days in jail, and paid $550 to the court for the events stemming from this single instance of illegal parking. Court records show that she twice attempted to make partial payments of $25 and $50, but the court returned those payments, refusing to accept anything less than payment in full. One of those payments was later accepted, but only after the court's letter rejecting payment by money order was returned as undeliverable. This woman is now making regular payments on the fine. As of December 2014, over seven years later, despite initially owing a $151 fine and having already paid $550, she still owed $541.
The report's conclusions will be unsurprising to the Ferguson residents who saw Michael Brown's death at the hands of Darren Wilson as just one example of the type of racially biased policing that made their city an unjust place for the 2/3 of its residents who are African American and fueled their distrust of the police department. But the results put numbers to these personal narratives about disparate treatment, and create the basis for a lawsuit by the Justice Department, which has concluded that Ferguson violated the constitutional rights of its black residents.