The killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, sparked protests in the small Missouri town that spread across the country and launched unprecedented federal investment in policing reform. But five years later, fatal police shootings have not declined, popular reforms like body cameras have fallen short of expectations, and the Justice Department has retreated from police reform.
Fatal Police Shootings Continue at Steady Pace
There are no reliable data about police shootings in America before 2014. But in early 2015, the Washington Post started a real-time police shooting database to record and analyze every fatal shooting by an on-duty police officer in the United States.
On-duty police officers have fatally shot more than 4400 people, the database shows. As noted in a recent New York Times column, police violence increased in the four years after Mr. Brown’s death. After a decline in 2016, the number of fatal police shootings rose in 2017 and 2018 to earlier rates, and 2019 is on track to meet or exceed those figures.
The data also show that African Americans are shot and killed by police at a disproportionate rate. An unarmed black man is about four times more likely to be killed by police than an unarmed white man. Since 2015, the Post reports, police have shot and killed an average of three people per day, most of them young men.
Despite resounding public demands for accountability, criminal charges against police officers remain rare. Bowling Green State University professor Philip Stinson, a former police officer who has tracked manslaughter and murder charges against police going back to 2005, told the New York Times there has been no significant uptick in such prosecutions since Ferguson. Convictions are even fewer. Before three officers were convicted of murder in the past year, Dr. Stinson had counted only one other murder conviction for an on-duty shooting since 2005.
The False Promise of Body Cameras
Michael Brown’s death amplified calls for the adoption of body cameras, which promised to increase transparency and accountability by providing a real-time record when police use force.
By 2016, the Times reports, nearly half of police agencies across the country had bought body cameras. A Justice Department survey released in November showed that 80 percent of police and sheriff’s agencies with more than 500 officers or deputies had body cameras.
But body cameras have since been found to have little effect on police officers’ behavior. Department policies often give officers discretion to choose when and what to record; in high-profile cases in Minneapolis and South Bend, Indiana, officers wearing body cameras failed to turn them on before they shot someone.
Critics say the shaky, low quality of bodycam footage can help justify police use of force. And a double standard has emerged when it comes to releasing bodycam footage — departments fight disclosure of footage unless it is favorable to the police, in which case it is often released immediately.
Proposals to use facial recognition software in conjuction with body cameras have accelerated privacy concerns about the cameras, which already capture potentially sensitive information about innocent members of the public. Today, as civil rights and police accountability advocate Albert Fox Cahn wrote in the New York Times, bodycameras are “begin[ning] to look less like a tool to keep cops in line and more like a tool to monitor civilians.”
A Federal Retreat from Reform
After police in Ferguson met protestors with tanks and other military-grade equipment, the Obama administration convened the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and, unveiling its recommendations in March 2015, President Obama called on the nation to seize the opportunity “to really transform how we think about community-law-enforcement relations so that everybody feels safer and our law enforcement officers feel, rather than being embattled, feel fully supported.”
The Justice Department’s civil rights division embarked on an unprecedented police reform campaign using investigations and consent decrees with police departments in Baltimore, Chicago, and Ferguson alongside a voluntary Collaborative Reform program that enrolled 16 police departments across the country.
The Trump administration has abandoned those efforts, halting new investigations and fighting to block or limit existing consent decrees. In September 2017, hours after a white police officer was acquitted in the shooting death of a black man in St. Louis, the Justice Department announced that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions had eliminated the Collaborative Reform program.
And just before he left office, Sessions issued a memorandum to make it more difficult for DOJ to enter into consent decrees with state and city governments, mandating closer control by the department’s most senior political appointees, requiring expiration dates for consent decrees, and limiting what the department can require of state and local agencies.
About a third of the staff assigned to investigate police practices at the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section (which numbered 29 people at its peak) have departed since Trump’s election, HuffPost reports. The Trump administration has shrunk the unit and there are no plans to replace employees who have left.
Monique Dixon, a top official at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, told HuffPost that local lawyers and advocates have had to take up the policing reform effort because of the Justice Department’s retreat. “It’s really causing civil rights organizations and local advocates to shift more and more resources to monitoring policing reform efforts that the federal government has abandoned,” she said.
The Trump administration has made public only one pattern-or-practice investigation, involving a total of 14 officers in Springfield, Massachusetts, who were indicted for beating four black men and two Latino juveniles. One of the officers allegedly spit on a juvenile and said, “Welcome to the white man’s world.” HuffPost reports that the current status of the investigation is unclear.
Five Years Later, Ferguson’s Problems Remain
In March 2015, the Justice Department released a 102-page report documenting its investigation into the police and courts in Ferguson. The investigation revealed racially discriminatory practices that Attorney General Eric Holder said have “severely undermined the public trust” and used law enforcement “not as a means for protecting public safety, but as a way to generate revenue.”
Ferguson’s police chief resigned after the report’s release and city prosecutor Bob McCulloch lost his re-election bid after failing to indict the officer who killed Michael Brown. Ferguson’s police department now has 21 black officers, a huge increase from four in 2014.
But the New York Times found that black drivers in St. Louis County continue to be stopped at much higher rates than white drivers. Despite a new state law capping the percentage of revenue that municipalities are allowed to earn from courts, the disparity in traffic stops of black drivers in Ferguson has increased by five percentage points since 2013, while it has dropped by 11 percentage points for white drivers.
“I can’t say things have gotten better,” Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a legal advocacy organization that has fought ticketing practices, told the Times. “I understand the status quo to be one of structural racism, poverty, overinvestment in the carceral system, and policing and prosecution. That is as real today in 2019 as it was five years ago in 2014.”