The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) report on the summer tragedy in Ferugson, Mo. makes a troubling and largely unreported charge: the Ferguson police department “routinely violates the Constitution and federal law” due to "the combination of Ferguson’s focus on generating revenue over public safety, along with racial bias.”
While the first of the report’s findings, that there was not enough evidence to charge Officer Darren Wilson with federal civil rights violations in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, was widely reported yesterday, less attention was paid to the second finding.
The report found that the approach of law enforcement in Ferguson emphasized “productivity and revenue generation, rather than lawful policing” and that the:
“Ferguson Police Department (FPD) engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the First, Fourth, and 14th Amendments of the Constitution.”
Officers in Ferguson “rely heavily on the municipal ‘Failure to Comply’ charge,” the report found. That charge “appears to be facially unconstitutional in part, and is frequently abused in practice.” The police also use unconstitutional stops, excessive use of force, and prevent citizens from protected conduct like recording the police.
Some examples of that abuse:
In an October 2011 incident, an officer arrested two sisters who were backing their car into their driveway. The officer claimed that the car had been idling in the middle of the street, warranting investigation, while the women claim they had pulled up outside their home to drop someone off when the officer arrived. In any case, the officer arrested one sister for failing to provide her identification when requested. He arrested the other sister for getting out of the car after being ordered to stay inside.
In December 2011, police officers approached two people sitting in a car on a public street and asked the driver for identification. When the driver balked, insisting that he was on a public street and should not have to answer questions, the officers ordered him out of the car and ultimately charged him with Failure to Comply.
In March 2013, officers responded to the police station to take custody of a person wanted on a state warrant. When they arrived, they encountered a different man— not the subject of the warrant—who happened to be leaving the station. Having nothing to connect the man to the warrant subject, other than his presence at the station, the officers nonetheless stopped him and asked that he identify himself. The man asserted his rights, asking the officers “Why do you need to know?” and declining to be frisked. When the man then extended his identification toward the officers, at their request, the officers interpreted his hand motion as an attempted assault and took him to the ground. Without articulating reasonable suspicion or any other justification for the initial detention, the officers arrested the man on two counts of Failure to Comply and two counts of Resisting Arrest.
One officer admitted to the DOJ investigators that he interprets a person’s assertion of their constitutional right to not show identification as “furtive and aggressive” conduct and usually cites them for “Failure to Comply.”
The DOJ also found “a pattern of suspicionless, legally unsupportable stops” of pedestrians walking which they call a ‘ped check.’” They then search and detain pedestrians even when they have no particularly reasonable suspicion and the detained do not match any criminal profile. These searches have no “constitutional legitimacy.”
These unconstitutional stops are brought “almost exclusively against African Americans” even though they comprise only 67% of Ferguson’s population.
“For example, from 2011 to 2013, African Americans accounted for 95% of Manner of Walking in Roadway charges, and 94% of all Failure to Comply charges. Notably, with 5 respect to speeding charges brought by FPD, the evidence shows not only that African Americans are represented at disproportionately high rates overall, but also that the disparate impact of FPD’s enforcement practices on African Americans is 48% larger when citations are issued not on the basis of radar or laser, but by some other method, such as the officer’s own visual assessment.”
A black man posted video of being stopped by a policeman in Michigan in December 2014 for walking with his hands in his pockets, a situation many deemed similiar to the stops outlined in the report.
The investigation uncovered racist emails from the Ferguson police, including a May 2011 one: “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.’”
“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,” said the report.
All of this undoubtedly contributed to the tinderbox that Ferguson became after Michael Brown’s death.
Finally, the approach of law enforcement in Ferguson emphasized “productivity and revenue generation, rather than lawful policing," allowing municipalities to use police citations as a major source of revenue and serving as a match to the Ferguson tinderbox.