Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday said his Justice Department’s investigation into the police and courts in Ferguson, Missouri, revealed racially discriminatory practices that 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.”
The Justice Department concluded in a 102-page report released Wednesday that the Ferguson Police Department was routinely violating the constitutional rights of Black citizens. Due to Ferguson’s focus on generating revenue, the report finds, “many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”
During a six-month investigation, federal investigators compiled stark statistics that reveal a pattern of racial bias: though Ferguson’s population is a third white, Black people accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of tickets, and 93 percent of arrests. In cases of minor offenses where arrests are up to the officer’s discretion, like disturbing the peace and jaywalking, 95 percent of those arrested were African American.
The police culture is rooted in a presumption of guilt that continues to put African Americans at risk of violence and abuse. “Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority,” the report reveals. “They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence.”
Investigators found that Ferguson police used force almost exclusively against African Americans; every person bitten by a police dog in Ferguson was Black. During the two-year period from 2012 to 2014, Black drivers were twice as likely to be searched as whites, even though white drivers were more likely to have drugs or other contraband.
“[T]his disproportionate burden on African Americans cannot be explained by any difference in the rate at which people of different races violate the law,” the report states. “Rather, our investigation has revealed that these disparities occur, at least in part, because of unlawful bias and stereotypes about African Americans.”
Investigators found substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson, including emails circulated by city officials that stereotype racial minorities as criminals. One email joked about an abortion by an African American woman being a means of crime control.
Ferguson’s municipal court primarily uses its judicial authority “to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests,” the report found, leading to unconstitutional practices that “impose unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American individuals, and run counter to public safety.”
African Americans are 68 percent less likely to have their cases dismissed by the municipal court; they are at least 50 percent more likely to have their cases lead to an arrest warrant; and they accounted for 92 percent of cases in which an arrest warrant was issued. Arrest warrants for missed appearances and payments are used almost exclusively to compel payment through the threat of incarceration. Of those actually arrested by Ferguson police only because of an outstanding municipal warrant, 96 percent are African American.
Minor offenses can generate crippling debts and result in jail time because of an inability to pay. One African American woman who parked her car illegally once in 2007 received two citations and a $151 fine, plus fees. She became homeless and was unable to pay in full; the court refused to accept partial payments and instead had her arrested twice and jailed for six days. By 2014, she had paid $550, but still owes $541 for a single parking ticket. The practice of jailing people who are too poor to pay exorbitant fines and fees for minor offenses is not unique to Ferguson.
The Justice Department report specifies more than two dozen changes to the police and municipal courts that must be made if the city hopes to avoid being sued. Importantly, it calls for city officials to publicly acknowledge the police and courts’ history of racial injustice and to take responsibility for creating mistrust and violating their citizens’ civil rights.