In a searing report released in March 2015, the US Department of Justice uncovered a pattern of racial bias in the Ferguson Police Department. And it argued that the disparities could only be explained, at least in part, by unlawful bias and stereotypes against African Americans.
The disparities were rooted in the city’s reliance on the police department and courts for local budget revenue: Federal officials found that city officials worked together at every level of enforcement — from city management to the local prosecutor to the police department — to make as much money from fines and court fees as possible, ranging from schemes to raise total fines for municipal code violations to asking cops to write as many citations as possible.
The report noted that, although black people made 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 have 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.”
The Justice Department also exposed at least seven racist jokes police and court officials exchanged over email, all of which were sent by employees and were apparently sent during work hours. One of the emails, from November 2008, said President Barack Obama won’t be president for long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”
The Justice Department found no evidence that any of the police and court officials who engaged in these emails were ever disciplined, although the officials involved lost their jobs after the investigation’s findings were released. 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.
The emails show, as the Justice Department suggested, that at least some of the racial disparities in local law enforcement can be explained by outright racism.