In the aftermath of a scathing report showing Ferguson unfairly targeted African-Americans and preyed on its most vulnerable citizens, the Justice Department is asking the city to make more than two dozen changes to the city's police department and municipal courts — or face a costly lawsuit.
The 102-page report on the patterns and practices of the Ferguson Police Department released on Wednesday, describes an out-of-control police department whose officers target African-Americans, stop and search people without reasonable suspicion, arrest people without probable cause, abuse their authority to quash protests, routinely ignore civil rights and use excessive force by unnecessarily using dogs, batons and Tasers.
It describes a city government that uses its police and courts as an ATM, tolerating a culture of police brutality while pressuring the police chief and court officials to increase traffic enforcement and fees without regard to public safety.
It exposes a court run by the police department that routinely violates due process and intentionally inflicts pain on the most vulnerable residents and whose supervisors circulated racially insensitive emails, one of which in 2011 depicted President Barack Obama as a chimpanzee.
On Tuesday, three DOJ officials went over the reports with top Ferguson officials in downtown St. Louis. The meetings were described as positive and productive, but DOJ officials stressed that the process of coming to an understanding with the city on improvements has only begun, and that agency still has the option of a lawsuit to force changes on the city.
A DOJ official involved with the meeting with the Ferguson officials said that while it was a "difficult" meeting, it was "very candid, open and honest." DOJ officials repeatedly stressed that Ferguson officials had expressed a willingness to cooperate, and had already embarked on a number of reforms.
DOJ officials gave no timetable on when they wanted to reach an agreement with the city over the proposed changes. The city is planning a press conference for late Wednesday afternoon.
The report came out the same day the Justice Department announced that former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson won't face any federal charges over the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, the incident that launched the federal probe.
The report draws no link between Brown's death and any of the police department's policies and practices, but says that the department's actions created an atmosphere of distrust between the city and its citizens.
HOLDER DESCRIBES 'POWDER KEG' ATMOSPHERE
Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday described his Justice Department's pattern and practice report on the Ferguson police and courts as "searing."
He condemned a "pervasive, corrosive" lack of trust in the police department, and said that the practices of Ferguson police and courts had "severely undermined the public trust," creating a "tensely charged atmosphere, where people feel under assault, under siege."
To many citizens, he said, Ferguson Police seem like a "collection agency" to write tickets and boost the city coffers with excessive fines and penalties of relatively minor violations.
"It is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg," Holder said, in an address before civil rights division employees at the Justice Department.
He said Ferguson police engage in "routine" violations of constitutional rights.
DOJ officials said they believe that many of the practices in Ferguson they criticized were also occurring in neighboring jurisdictions. One DOJ official involved in the negotiations with Ferguson officials expressed hope that that those "maybe engaging in similar kinds of police practices and activities that are unconstitutional ... will similarly choose to engage in reform."
The DOJ report notes that Title VI and the Safe Streets Act prohibit law enforcement activities that have a disparate impact on minorities, regardless of intent.
But, investigators found, the intent was there, too.
"The race-based disparities created by Ferguson’s law enforcement practices cannot be explained by chance or by any difference in the rates at which people of different races adhere to the law," the report notes. "These disparities occur, at least in part, because Ferguson law enforcement practices are directly shaped and perpetuated by racial bias."
For that reason, Ferguson was also found to have violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which prohibits discriminatory treatment on the basis of race.
DISCRIMINATORY POLICIES AND PRACTICES
The report says that "African-Americans are disproportionately represented at nearly every stage of Ferguson law enforcement, from the initial police contact to final disposition of a case in municipal court."
The report discusses dozens of cases where people were abused by the system.
There was a 32-year-old black man who was sitting in a car after playing basketball. A police officer stopped him because his windows were more deeply tinted than permissible by city code. The officer accused the man of being a pedophile, prohibited him from using his phone, ordered him out of the car for a pat-down and asked to search his car.
“When the man refused, citing his constitutional rights, the officer reportedly pointed a gun at his head, and arrested him.”
He was charged with eight counts, including making a false declaration for providing a short form of his first name (for example, Mike instead of Michael) and an address that, although legitimate, was different from the one on his license.
The officer also charged the man both with having an expired drivers license, and with having no license in his possession.
Officers also make heavy use of a municipal “failure to comply” ordinance, which they interpret as giving them the right to arrest anyone who disobeys them at any time.
“Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority,” the report said. “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. Police supervisors and leadership do too little to ensure that officers act in accordance with law and policy, and rarely respond meaningfully to civilian complaints of officer misconduct.
Despite making up 67 percent of the population, African-Americans have accounted for 85 percent of all traffic stops, and were the subject of 90 percent of the citations and 93 percent of the arrests made by Ferguson police over the last two years.
One of the charges where blacks are cited more often than whites: "Manner of Walking," which is issued to blacks 95 percent of the time.
African-Americans are also 70 percent less likely to have their charges dismissed by a judge.
"These disparities are not the necessary or unavoidable results of legitimate public safety efforts," the report notes. "In fact, the practices that lead to these disparities in many ways undermine law enforcement effectiveness" in violation of federal law.
The report says that the consistency and magnitude of the racial disparities throughout Ferguson's police and court practices — one that "at each juncture, enforces the law more harshly against black people than others" — paired with racial bias found in the communications of police and court supervisors, demonstrates a discriminatory purpose and denies African-Americans equal protection of the laws in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
The traffic stop numbers the justice department used appear to be based on data from the Missouri Attorney General's Office.
Rick Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri-St. Louis said judging whether police departments are guilty of racial profiling based on those numbers can be problematic.
"We have a denominator problem with Missouri stop rates because they are normed by the racial composition of the municipality in which the stop was made, and yet the drivers who are stopped may or may not reside in that community, so the racial composition of the driving populations in a municipality may not be similar to the racial composition of the residential population," he said.
The Justice Department report said the police also engage in a pattern of violating 1st Amendment rights, by shutting down protests and prohibiting people from using cameras or phones to record police actions.
“Officers frequently make enforcement decisions based on what subjects say, or how they say it. Just as officers reflexively resort to arrest immediately upon noncompliance with their orders, whether lawful or not, they are quick to overreact to challenges and verbal slights. These incidents —sometimes called “contempt of cop” cases — are propelled by officers’ belief that arrest is an appropriate response to disrespect.”
Even as recently as a month ago, officers violated people’s right to free speech, the report says. On Feb. 9, several people were protesting outside the Ferguson police station on the six-month anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, standing peacefully in the police department’s parking lot, on the sidewalks in front of it, and across the street.
Video footage showed two Ferguson police vehicles abruptly accelerate from the parking lot, and an officer announce, “everybody here’s going to jail,” causing the protesters to run. Video shows that as one man recorded the police arresting others, he was arrested for interfering with police action. Officers pushed him to the ground, began handcuffing him, and told him, “Stop resisting or you’re going to get tased.”
But video showed the man was neither interfering nor resisting. A protester in a wheelchair who was live streaming the protest was also arrested. Another officer moved several people with cameras away from the scene of the arrests, warning them against interfering and urging them to back up or else be arrested for Failure to Obey.
A sergeant yelled at people filming they would be arrested for Manner of Walking if they did not back away out of the street, even though the video showed the protesters and those recording were on the sidewalk. Six people were arrested.
The report said, “It appears that officers’ escalation of this incident was unnecessary and in response to derogatory comments written in chalk on the FPD parking lot asphalt and on a police vehicle.”
POLICE AS DEBT COLLECTORS
In addition to the practices criticized as discriminatory, the report says Ferguson increasingly used its police and courts to raise revenue — often at the expense of those who were poor and African-American.
Ferguson's municipal court revenue has shown consistent growth, year by year. In 2010, the city's municipal court generated $1.38 million in fines and fees, the report said.
For the current year, the city’s budget anticipates fines and fees of $3.09 million.
The Justice Department's report on Ferguson said the city used its police department as "a collection agency."
"Patrol assignments and schedules are geared toward aggressive enforcement of Ferguson’s municipal code, with insufficient thought given to whether enforcement strategies promote public safety or unnecessarily undermine community trust and cooperation," the report said. "Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on 'productivity,' meaning the number of citations issued."
The report stated: "Ferguson police officers from all ranks told us that revenue generation is stressed heavily within the police department, and that the message comes from City leadership. The evidence we reviewed supports this perception."
Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said he was "very satisfied" with the pattern and practice findings, but disappointed in the criminal finding. He again criticized a county grand jury decision to not indict Wilson.
"People need to understand that this is a family," Clay said. "The Brown family has lost someone near and dear to them. We should not lose sight of that because they have experienced a tragedy that a lot of us cannot say we have ever felt."
Clay seconded the DOJ officials' hope that neighboring jurisdictions will see the Ferguson pattern and practice recommendations and institute them, as well.
"Stop violating the law, stop violating the constitutional rights of African-Americans, stop profiling, stop arresting people for driving while black or walking while black," Clay said.
Ferguson, he added, "has given us — St. Louis — a national and worldwide reputation that none of us wants to have. We want to improve on that."
The department has recommended 26 reforms divided equally among the city's police department and court system.
Proposed police reforms include: requiring a supervisor to approve any arrest on charges of failure to comply, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and obstructing government operations; changing the department's use of force policy and training officers on de-escalation techniques; training officers to detect biased-based profiling and other forms of discriminatory policing; involving civilians in police decision making; developing better mechanisms to respond to officer misconduct.
Among the proposed court reforms are: making the court process more transparent; providing accurate information to those charged with violations; reducing of some fines; offering payment plans; and stop using the arrest warrants as a means of collecting fines and fees.
While Department of Justice officials stressed they want to work with Ferguson in enacting the recommendations, Holder stressed everything remains on the table, including a lawsuit to force compliance if the city resists.
DOJ officials said the first steps are "a range of meetings" over the coming weeks with community members, police, and city officials, with the goal of agreeing on a list of reforms for legally enforceable "consent decree." A court-appointed overseer would monitor progress.
Holder, who is awaiting the approval of his nominated successor, Loretta Lynch, and could leave office within days, said he hoped there would be productive conversations to that means.
The fact that DOJ officials repeatedly stressed the cooperation they have gotten from Ferguson officials so far.
Officials said they were encouraged that Ferguson has already begun "bias-free policing" training , and has implemented changes in police and court policies that require supervisor approval for officers to issue more than two tickets at one stop; a reduction in the time people are held in jail on warrant-less arrests from 72 to 12 hours; and new procedures streamlining bail bonding and making it easier for people to pay fines and penalties.
Those changes "are initial steps and they demonstrate a willingness to engage the reforms that we put out," a top DOJ officials said. But they are only initial acts, and much hard work will be necessary to comply with the report's findings, the DOJ official said.
DOJ officials said they were cognizant that police departments, including Ferguson's, are financially strapped.
But "the cost of not doing this, not just monetarily, but otherwise, are pretty severe," a Justice Department official said.
Jennifer Mann, Christine Byers and Valerie Schremp Hahn of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
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