Independent News from Alternative Sources
The Department of Justice (DOJ) released its report on policing in Ferguson, Missouri on Thursday, where unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, last summer. Brown’s death, and the behavior of Ferguson police in its wake, started a wave of protests in Missouri and around the country.
Though the DOJ found insufficient evidence to level new charges against Wilson, what it did find is arguably even more important for the national conversation about police misconduct and militarization: The Ferguson Police Department (FPD) engaged in a systemic pattern of policing for profit, profiling minorities, and regularly abusing Ferguson residents’ First and Fourth Amendment rights.
Here are some particularly damning excerpts of the report which highlight these issues (all emphases added):
Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing… City officials routinely urge [the FPD] to generate more revenue through enforcement. – “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,” p. 2
What this means in practice is that the city actually made parts of its budget dependent on revenues from fines collected by police. This created an incentive for police to hassle people over even the most harmless infractions if it meant they could earn a buck for local government.
For lower-income people and small businesses, this is economically devastating: “These aren’t violent criminals. These are people who make the same mistakes you or I do — speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, forgetting to get your car inspected on time. The difference is that they don’t have the money to pay the fines. Or they have kids, or jobs that don’t allow them to take time off for two or three court appearances. When you can’t pay the fines, you get fined for that, too. And when you can’t get to court, you get an arrest warrant.”
As Reason puts it, this amounts to treating “residents as revenue streams.” It should be more reminiscent of the abuses of the rich nobles in the story of Robin Hood than anything in an ostensibly free country.
Ferguson’s law enforcement practices overwhelmingly impact African Americans. Data collected by the Ferguson Police Department from 2012 to 2014 shows that African Americans account for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67% of Ferguson’s population. African Americans are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops even after controlling for non-race based variables such as the reason the vehicle stop was initiated, but are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers, suggesting officers are impermissibly considering race as a factor when determining whether to search. […]
Nearly 90% of documented force used by FPD officers was used against African Americans. In every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the person bitten was African American. – “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,” p. 4-5
Did you catch that? In Ferguson, black people are stopped, searched, cited, brutalized, and arrested far more often than white people, even though they are 26 percent less likely to be found carrying anything illegal. The population which is actually less likely to be guilty is getting almost all the police’s attention.
That’s not only racist; it’s also really dangerous. No responsible police force spends more time bothering innocent people than going after real criminals.
The report also revealed truly gross instances of racism in FPD emails. (See p. 72 of the report to read several examples.) One email actually “joked” that black women should get abortions to lower crime rates, a remark horribly racist and offensive to anyone who values human life.
[FPD engaged in] a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement on free expression, as well as retaliation for protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. […]
FPD arrests people for a variety of protected conduct: people are punished for talking back to officers, recording public police activities, and lawfully protesting perceived injustices. Under the Constitution, what a person says generally should not determine whether he or she is jailed. […]
[One FPD officer] acknowledged that he regularly exceeds his authority under the Fourth Amendment by arresting passengers who refuse, as is their right, to provide identification…Further, the officer told us that he was trained to arrest for this violation. – “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,” p. 2-3, 23-24
As Vice argues, “this is exactly what living in a police state is like.”
For instance, the report includes a story of a black man in Ferguson who was doing nothing worse than sitting in his car to cool off in the AC after playing basketball (p. 2). Police blocked his car in, demanded he give them his Social Security number, and accused him of being a pedophile. When he objected to a car search and full body pat-down on constitutional grounds, “the officer arrested the man, reportedly at gunpoint, charging him with eight violations of Ferguson’s municipal code.” One of those charges was for saying his name was “Mike” instead of “Michael.” This would be funny if it wasn’t so absurdly sad, illegal, and wrong.
What I’ve detailed here is only the tip of the iceberg of abuses chronicled in this report—and if even the Obama Administration’s DOJ thinks a government agency is out of control and behaving unconstitutionally, you know that’s a really screwed up situation. Indeed, in light of this report, it is clear that the Ferguson protests are a thoroughly justified, limited-government reaction to years of incessant government overgrowth, corruption, and injustice.
Ultimately, I don’t know what happened in Ferguson on August 9, 2014. I wasn’t there, and the conflicting stories present a muddy picture at best. So maybe your suspicions about what happened and the integrity of the grand jury trial are not the same as mine.
But in a real sense, now that we have this more comprehensive report on how police have been habitually operating in Ferguson, that doesn’t matter.
Michael Brown’s death—rightly or wrongly—was the match that lit the fire of protest, as if Ferguson was a dry wood pile the police had been dousing with gasoline for years.
Author: Bonnie Kristian