clock menu more-arrow no yes

4 things Ferguson needs to do to even begin to fix its race problems

This man's expression basically captures the DOJ's attitude toward the Ferguson police: What the heck, dudes?
This man's expression basically captures the DOJ's attitude toward the Ferguson police: What the heck, dudes?

The Department of Justice's report on racial discrimination in the Ferguson, Missouri, police department and criminal justice system is notable for how damning it is. There's a jaw-dropping anecdote or statistic on practically every one of its 102 pages. But the DOJ's purpose isn't to condemn Ferguson; it's to provide a record of how thoroughly the city has failed so far and to encourage local officials to work with the federal government so it can start to get better.

The report concludes with 26 recommendations for how Ferguson can start fixing its race problems and improve police-community relations in the process. Those recommendations range from very broad to very specific, and while some of them can be implemented easily (like ending 12-hour shifts for police officers), others are more long-term goals (like taking "steps to eliminate all forms of workplace bias" in the police department and city government).

These recommendations demonstrate that the problems in Ferguson go much deeper than racist emails: discrimination is built into the way that the police department and court system operate. And it makes it clear just how much work the city is going to have to do. Here are four big things that, according to the DOJ, Ferguson needs to start doing immediately.

1. Actually get involved in the community

Ferguson police-community relations

A Ferguson, MO police officer shakes the hand of a young boy. (Anadolu Agency)

The first recommendation the DOJ makes seems pretty abstract: the Ferguson PD needs to implement a genuine community policing strategy. But the body of the report makes it clear that Ferguson has failed so completely at community policing in the past few years that there are easy and obvious fixes the department can make.

According to the report, many Ferguson police officers said that community policing used to be a priority for the city. But as pressure rose to start issuing more tickets that would make money for the city, community policing got pushed to the side.

One officer said that the police department looks more kindly on officers for writing tickets than for "talk(ing) with your businesses." It's not just a tradeoff between one priority and another, either — overcriminalization actively gets in the way of developing relationships with the community. The DOJ report says, "Another officer told us that officers cannot 'get out of the car and play basketball with the kids,' because 'we’ve removed all the basketball hoops— there’s an ordinance against it.'"

The report strongly implies that it took the killing of Michael Brown, who was shot to death in Ferguson last August by then-police officer Darren Wilson, and the protests that ensued, for police officers and city officials to realize that (in the DOJ's words) "there are entire segments of the Ferguson community that they have never made an effort to know, especially African Americans who live in Ferguson’s large apartment complexes."

Building these relationships is going to take a change in attitude: the DOJ report offers plenty of evidence that Ferguson officials are simply dismissive of African-American residents, in addition to evidence that some city employees are blatantly racist. But there are also concrete steps the city can take. The DOJ recommends that the Ferguson police department stop putting officers on 12-hour shifts, and start giving them consistent geographical beats so they can get to know a neighborhood. And it suggests that the city think outside the box to create "opportunities for officers to have frequent, positive interactions with people outside of an enforcement context, especially groups that have expressed high levels of distrust of police."

2. Stop letting officers arrest whoever they want

police arrest

(Robert Nickelsberg/Getty)

Several of the DOJ's recommendations involve more supervision and oversight of Ferguson police officers — even something as simple as making a supervisor review all the reports his officers have filed before the end of his shift. In part, this is just standard good-government, accountability stuff. But the DOJ also makes it clear that Ferguson police officers need to be under tighter scrutiny about who they arrest, and why, because they're often using their discretion in unconstitutional and racist ways.

For example, Ferguson police rely heavily on a local law that allows them to arrest people for "failure to comply" with law enforcement. The DOJ report shows that this is often used to arrest people who refuse to do something that the officer can't legally tell them to do. In one case, an officer arrested two minors because he'd discovered them fighting after he'd told one to stay home for the rest of the day and the other one not to seek her out. In other cases, people were arrested for refusing to identify themselves — even though it was totally within their rights to do so. At least one man was arrested because an officer approached him and asked for his Social Security number, and the man refused to give it.

Like much of the other behavior documented in the DOJ report, officer discretion typically ends up creating a substantial racial disparity. It's not just that black residents in Ferguson make up a disproportionate number of traffic stops and are twice as likely to be searched during one, even though they're less likely to actually be found with contraband than white residents. It's that when officers are using their own judgment to decide who to arrest, that racial disparity gets nearly 50 percent worse than it is when they're using, for example, a radar gun to catch speeding drivers.

Letting officers arrest people they don't have cause to arrest isn't specific to Ferguson, either — it's an area-wide problem. The DOJ calls out a St. Louis-area practice of calling out "wanted" notices from one officer to other officers and departments, asking them to arrest someone the next time they encounter him. The problem, as the DOJ notes, is that officers are supposed to get warrants before they can just arrest someone at will — and "wanted" notices are usually used precisely because there isn't enough evidence to issue a warrant.

The DOJ recommends putting pretty strict limits on when officers can make arrests like these. It suggests that Ferguson stop honoring "wanted" notices from other jurisdictions, period. And it recommends that an officer get permission from his supervisor before arresting someone for "failure to comply" or "resisting arrest."

3. De-escalate situations even when force would be legally justified

Police brutality illustration

DOJ to Ferguson: Less of this, please. (Quinn Dombrowski)

Use of force training is often based on when an officer is legally allowed to use force — not on whether it's a good idea. This problem is much bigger than Ferguson — it goes back to police departments building their policies around Supreme Court rulings on when lethal force is legal, and sending cues to police officers about what to say to justify lethal force after the fact. But the DOJ's report strongly implies that police in Ferguson are even worse at using restraint in force than other jurisdictions:

Officers across the country encounter drunkenness, passive defiance, and verbal challenges. But in Ferguson, officers have not been trained or incentivized to use deescalation techniques to avoid or minimize force in these situations. Instead, they respond with impatience, frustration, and disproportionate force.

The DOJ says that officers need to be trained in "de-escalation" of situations, and in how to avoid using unnecessary force even when they'd legally be allowed to do so.

In particular, the report says, Ferguson police need to start treating Tasers (referred to in the report as "ECWs," or Electronic Control Weapons) as a "tool of necessity, not convenience." The DOJ says that officers sometimes automatically "resort to using ECWs against individuals who typically have committed low-level crimes." On the other hand, officers don't always use Tasers when they ought to: Darren Wilson, for example, famously said that he didn't have his Taser on him when he encountered Michael Brown because he found wearing it to be uncomfortable.

4. Stop using steep court fees and fines as a way to make money for the city

Gavel and book

(Shutterstock)

Half of the DOJ's recommendations are actually about Ferguson's municipal court system. In recent years, Ferguson has been using court fees and fines as a way to generate revenue for the city: in 2014, 20 percent of all money the city took in came from court fees. It's not surprising, then, that those fines can get pretty steep:

our investigation found instances in which the court charged $302 for a single Manner of Walking violation; $427 for a single Peace Disturbance violation; $531 for High Grass and Weeds; $777 for Resisting Arrest; and $792 for Failure to Obey, and $527 for Failure to Comply, which officers appear to use interchangeably.

This, too, disproportionately hits black residents. For one thing, black residents are more likely to have to show up in court because they're getting stopped by police more often. Furthermore, once they arrive in court they're far less likely than non-black residents to get the charges against them dismissed — 68 percent less likely, in fact. Furthermore, residents who don't show up to their court hearings (or show up after the courtroom has gotten so crowded that the doors have been locked) are liable to get arrested just for missing the court date. Ninety-two percent of the time that Ferguson courts issued an arrest warrant in 2013, the subject of the warrant was black.

The DOJ report gets very specific about what Ferguson's municipal courts need to do. They need to take a hard look at how steep their fines are, and bring them in line with other jurisdictions. They need to ensure that residents understand when they're expected in court, what they owe, and what their options are. They need to install permanent programs for leniency in fine repayment and reinstating driver's licenses, rather than having occasional "amnesty" programs or leniency in "sympathetic cases." And they need to stop issuing arrest warrants for people whose only offense is that they didn't show up to court to pay a fine.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.