The Justice Department announced the findings of its two civil rights investigations related to Ferguson, Missouri, today. The Justice Department found 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. The Justice Department also announced that the evidence examined in its independent, federal investigation into the fatal shooting of Michael Brown does not support federal civil rights charges against Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.
“As detailed in our report, this investigation found a community that was deeply polarized, and where deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “Our investigation showed that Ferguson police officers routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force against them. Now that our investigation has reached its conclusion, it is time for Ferguson’s leaders to take immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action. The report we have issued and the steps we have taken are only the beginning of a necessarily resource-intensive and inclusive process to promote reconciliation, to reduce and eliminate bias, and to bridge gaps and build understanding.”
Attorney General Holder first announced the comprehensive pattern or practice investigation into the Ferguson Police Department after visiting that community in August 2014, and hearing directly from residents about police practices and the lack of trust between FPD and those they are sworn to protect. The investigation focused on the FPD’s use of force, including deadly force; stops, searches and arrests; discriminatory policing; and treatment of detainees inside Ferguson’s city jail by Ferguson police officers.
In the course of its pattern or practice investigation, the Civil Rights Division reviewed more than 35,000 pages of police records; interviewed and met with city, police and court officials, including the FPD’s chief and numerous other officers; conducted hundreds of in-person and telephone interviews, as well as participated in meetings with community members and groups; observed Ferguson Municipal Court sessions, and; analyzed FPD’s data on stops, searches and arrests. It found that the combination of Ferguson’s focus on generating revenue over public safety, along with racial bias, has a profound effect on the FPD’s police and court practices, resulting in conduct that routinely violates the Constitution and federal law. The department also found that these patterns created a lack of trust between the FPD and significant portions of Ferguson’s residents, especially African Americans.
The department found that the FPD has a pattern or practice of:
- Conducting stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment;
- Interfering with the right to free expression in violation of the First Amendment; and
- Using unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The department found that Ferguson Municipal Court has a pattern or practice of:
- Focusing on revenue over public safety, leading to court practices that violate the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements.
- Court practices exacerbating the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices and imposing particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty.Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.
The department found a pattern or practice of racial bias in both the FPD and municipal court:
- The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans and that this disproportionate impact is avoidable.
- Ferguson’s harmful court and police practices are due, at least in part, to intentional discrimination, as demonstrated by direct evidence of racial bias and stereotyping about African Americans by certain Ferguson police and municipal court officials.
The findings are laid out in a 100-page report that discusses the evidence and what remedies should be implemented to end the pattern or practice.
Here are some of the most striking examples cited in the 102-page Justice Department report:
The 67% of African Americans in Ferguson account for 93% of arrests made from 2012-2014
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.
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.
In 2015, the city anticipated raising more than $3 million in fines and fees — more than double the total from five years earlier.
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 said President Barack Obama won’t be president for long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”
- An April 2011 email depicted President Obama as a chimpanzee.
- An email joked that African-American women should use abortion to control crime.
- A May 2011 email said, “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.'”
- A March 2010 email mocked African Americans with horrible stereotypes about their families and how they speak. One line of the email read, “I be so glad that dis be my last child support payment! Month after month, year after year, all dose payments!”
- A June 2011 email said a man wanted to obtain “welfare” for his dogs because they are “mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddies are.”
- An October 2011 email had a photo of a bare-chested group of dancing women, apparently in Africa, with the caption, “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.”
- A December 2011 email made jokes based off offensive stereotypes about Muslims.
“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.
In his press conference tonight, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles 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.
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.
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.
“Canine officers use dogs out of proportion to the threat posed by the people they encounter, leaving serious puncture wounds to nonviolent offenders, some of them children.” – DOJ report
Every single time Ferguson police officers released a dog to bite an individual involved an African-American, according to the department’s records.
- In one incident, a police officer released a dog on a 14-year-old African-American boy who was found hiding in the closet of an abandoned house, “curled up in a ball,” according to the police report. After the boy wouldn’t show his hands and after being warned, the police officer released the dog, which bit the boy’s arm. The boy told federal investigators he never hid in a closet, was never warned the dog would be released and was just waiting for his friends at the house. He said he was bitten in the ankle, thigh and arm.
- In other incidents, the officers failed to warn suspects that they would release a dog.
- In another instance, an officer deployed a dog on a fleeing suspect even though he had just patted down the suspect and knew he was not armed. Officers are only supposed to release a canine officer if they fear for their life or believe the suspect may be armed.
- Less than 8% of Ferguson police officers are African-American.
- African-Americans accounted for 90% of officers’ use of force.
- African-Americans weren’t just more likely to be stopped, but more likely to be cited and arrested regardless of the reason for the stop. And they were more likely to receive multiple citations during a single incident.
- African-American drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during traffic stops, but 26% less likely to be found in possession of contraband.
The findings include two sets of recommendations, 26 in total, that the Justice Department believes are necessary to correct the unconstitutional FPD and Ferguson Municipal Court practices. The recommendations include: changing policing and court practices so that they are based on public safety instead of revenue; improving training and oversight; changing practices to reduce bias, and; ending an overreliance on arrest warrants as a means of collecting fines.
The Justice Department will require that the recommendations and other measures be part of a court-enforceable remedial process that includes involvement from community stakeholders as well as independent oversight. The Justice Department has provided its investigative report to the FPD and in the coming weeks, the Civil Rights Division will seek to work with the City of Ferguson and the Ferguson community to develop and reach an agreement for reform, using the recommendations in the report as the starting point.
Ferguson city officials said in a statement on their website that they were reviewing the findings and would hold a press conference later on Wednesday. On the website, the city also outlined steps it has taken to improve relations with the community since Brown’s death. In October, it set up a citizen review board to make recommendations to the mayor. It also began installing body and dashboard cameras for police officers and launched an effort to recruit officers from more diverse backgrounds.
The federal criminal investigation into the fatal shooting of Michael Brown sought to determine whether the evidence from the events that led to Brown’s death was sufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Wilson’s actions violated federal civil rights laws that make it a federal crime for someone acting with law enforcement authority to willfully violate a person’s civil rights. As part of the investigation, federal authorities reviewed physical, ballistic, forensic, and crime scene evidence; medical reports and autopsy reports, including an independent autopsy performed by the U.S. Department of Defense Armed Forces Medical Examiner Service; Wilson’s personnel records; audio and video recordings; internet postings, and; the transcripts from the proceedings before the St. Louis County grand jury. Federal investigators interviewed purported eyewitnesses and other individuals claiming to have relevant information. Federal prosecutors and agents re-interviewed dozens of witnesses to evaluate their accounts and obtain more detailed information. FBI agents independently canvassed more than 300 residences to locate and interview additional witnesses.
The standard of proof is the same for all criminal cases: that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. However, unlike state laws, federal criminal civil rights statutes do not have the equivalent of manslaughter or a statute that makes negligence a crime. Federal statutes require the government to prove that Officer Wilson used unreasonable force when he shot Michael Brown and that he did so willfully, that is, he shot Brown knowing it was wrong and against the law to do so. After a careful and deliberative review of all of the evidence, the department has determined that the evidence does not establish that Darren Wilson violated the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute. The family of Michael Brown was notified earlier today of the department’s findings.
Due to the high interest in this case, the department took the rare step of publicly releasing the closing memo in the case. The report details, in over 80 pages, the evidence, including evidence from witnesses, the autopsies and physical evidence from the analysis of the DNA, blood, shooting scene and ballistics. The report also explains the law as developed by the federal courts and applies that law to the evidence.
In December, President Barack Obama convened a task force on 21st century policing. Its preliminary report (PDF), released this week, recommended compiling data on officer-involved shootings and establishing independent investigations of such incidents. It also recommended reducing police use of military equipment during protests, though it stopped short of recommending the widespread use of body cameras for officers, citing privacy concerns.
The task force also recommended that departments work to build trust in communities of color. A survey it conducted found that 72 percent of whites said they were confident officers would treat people of other races the same way; only 46 percent of Hispanics and 36 percent of blacks agreed.