Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said the city “must do better” to address racism after a stunning Department of Justice report revealed a range of abuses committed against African American residents by the city’s police force.
“We must do better not only as a city but as a state and a country. We must all work to address issues of racial disparity in all aspects of our society,” he said at a press conference Wednesday night.
Knowles outlined a number of steps the city is taking to comply with DOJ recommendations and reform its force, which was found in the DOJ report to have engaged in systemic racism against the city’s African American residents.
He also said one of the three city workers who the DOJ report identified as having sent racist emails had been fired, and the other two were under investigation. However, a source close to the investigation tells CNN that the other two individuals’ jobs “will not survive the investigation.”
Two of the individuals are officers and one is an employee at the department.
The Justice Department report found that African-American Ferguson residents may have felt like they were being used as the city’s personal ATM, by the way the police department hit them with traffic fines.
One woman has paid $550 on what was original a $151 fine for two parking tickets – and, more than seven years later, she still owes $541.
The police also let dogs loose on residents, sometimes without warning.
One 14-year-old African-American boy said he was waiting for his friends at a house, unarmed, when police released a dog that bit his ankle, thigh and arm.
Harassment was also a common occurrence.
An African-American man was cooling off in his car after playing basketball in a public park in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2012 when a police officer approached him and accused him of being a pedophile.
This was the atmosphere of the city where white Officer Darren Wilson and 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown confronted each other last August – with Wilson’s shooting of Brown triggering months of protests that only intensified after local officials decided not to charge Wilson with a crime.
The Justice Department completed a months-long review of the case and released those results Wednesday. The report cites “unlawful bias against and stereotypes about African-Americans,” and points to a number of violations of constitutional rights.
Attorney General Eric Holder said a “highly toxic environment” existed between Ferguson police officers and the city’s African-American residents before Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown last year.
“It’s not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,” Holder said.
He pointed to the use of excessive force overwhelmingly against African-American residents, noting that only African-Americans were bit by police dogs, and said “no alternative explanation” except racial bias exists to explain it.
Holder also said Ferguson’s police department violated residents’ First Amendment rights to record the activities of officers, regularly conducted illegal searches and unlawfully detained citizens and competed with each other to “see who can issue the largest number of citations in a single stop.”
He said the city’s municipal courts and local government “relies on the police force to serve essentially as a collection agency.”
In a press conference later on Wednesday, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch said the Justice Department decision to not press federal charges against Wilson was not surprising, given the evidence.
He also took the opportunity to slam the federal agency for leaking information to the media.
“The only pattern and practice I can talk about is the pattern and practice of the Department of Justice of leaking information to the media,” he said. “[No one is saying] there haven’t been instances of racial profiling and other profiling, but to suggest that somehow it’s all that goes on out there in fact does a great disservice to everybody.”
1. Unlawful arrest has long-term consequences
Summer of 2012. A 32-year-old African-American was cooling off in his car after a basketball game in a public park.
What comes next is a series of civil rights violations described in the Justice Department report that resulted in the man losing his job as a federal contractor.
A Ferguson police officer demands the man’s Social Security number and identification before accusing him of being a pedophile and ordering the man out of his car.
When the officer asked to search the man’s car, the 32-year-old refused, invoking his constitutional right.
The response? The officer arrested the man at gunpoint, slapped him with eight charges, including for not wearing a seat belt, despite the fact that he was sitting in a parked car. The officer also cited him for “making a false declaration” because he gave his name as ‘Mike’ instead of ‘Michael.’
“The man told us that, because of these charges, he lost his job as a contractor with the federal government that he had held for years,” the report says.
2. People? More like, “sources of revenue”
The Justice Department also revealed that driving the uneven hand of the law in Ferguson was “the city’s emphasis on revenue generation.”
City officials repeatedly pushed the Ferguson police department to increase city revenue through ticketing, resulting in disproportionate targeting of African-Americans.
“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,” the probe concluded.
African-Americans were disproportionately targeted by those practices, ticketed and cited for minor violations at a higher rate than white residents.
And African-Americans were almost exclusively on the receiving end of some violations: They accounted for 95% of “manner of walking in roadway” charges and 94% of “failure to comply” charges, for example.
3. Racist emails
Ferguson’s police officers and city court officials’ practices didn’t just happen to disproportionately target African-Americans.
“Rather, our investigation has revealed that these disparities occur, at least in part, because of unlawful bias against and stereotypes about African-Americans,” the investigators concluded.
Part of that bias came across in emails shared around by police and court officials:
- A November 2008 email read in part that President Barack Obama wouldn’t likely be president for long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.” And then in April 2011, another email depicted Obama as a chimpanzee.
- Another email joked that African-American women should use abortion to control crime.
- May 2011 email: “An African-American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination. Two weeks later she received a check for $3,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said: ‘Crimestoppers.’”
- A March 2010 email mockingly read: “I be so glad that dis be my last child support payment!” Month after month, year after year, all dose payments!”
- October 2011: An email included a photo of a group of topless, dancing black women, seemingly in Africa, with the caption: “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.”
- A December 2011 email included jokes playing on offensive Muslim stereotypes
“Our investigation has not revealed any indication that any officer or court clerk engaged in these communications was ever disciplined,” the report reads.
All those who sent the emails are current Ferguson city officials.
4. Didn’t pay that parking ticket? Here’s your arrest warrant
The Justice Department probe revealed racial discrimination by the police department, but also by the municipal court.
The city court issued more than 9,000 arrest warrants stemming from minor violations like parking and traffic tickets.
The city wasn’t just focused on revenue through tickets, but the fines associated with late payment of fines and additional arrest fees, according to the report.
The investigators spoke with one woman who is still dealing with the repercussions of a 2007 parking violation.
More than seven years later, she’s now been arrested twice because of the parking violation and has already paid $550 in fees stemming from the parking violation.
She still owes $541 … on a ticket that originally amounted to a $151 fine.
“The woman, who experienced financial difficulties and periods of homelessness over several years, was charged with seven Failure to Appear offenses for missing court dates or fine payments on her parking tickets between 2007 and 2010,” the report says.
5. Use of force
The Ferguson Police Department recorded 151 instances in which officers used force, documents that provide a litany of evidence of excessive use of force.
“Our finding that FPD force is routinely unreasonable and sometimes clearly punitive is drawn largely from FPD’s documentation; that is, from officers’ own words,” the Justice Department explained.
The federal investigation based on those reports revealed that officers are “quick to escalate encounters with subjects they perceive to be disobeying their orders or arrest.”
“They have come to rely on ECWs, specifically Tasers, where less force – or not force at all – would do,” the report explains.
The officers’ use of force in some cases had “no basis in law” while others were simply “punitive and retaliatory.”
“In addition, FPD records suggest a tendency to use unnecessary force against vulnerable groups such as people with mental health conditions or cognitive disabilities, and juvenile students,” the investigators found.
Tasers, or “ECWs–an electroshock weapon that disrupts a person’s muscle control”
“FPD officers seem to regard ECWs as an all-purpose tool bearing no risk.” - DOJ report
The Justice Department described officers’ use of ECWs as “swift, at times automatic” and shows several examples, such as:
- A Ferguson correctional officer fired an ECW at an African-American woman because she yelled an insult at the officer and wouldn’t go to her cell. She had been arrested for driving while intoxicated. The officer said he used the Taser because she was “not doing as she was told.”
- And in September 2012, an officer stunned a handcuffed woman in the back of his squad car because she was using her legs to block him from closing the door.