How the Feds Let Ferguson Rot

The Justice Department rightly condemns the city's racism and civil-rights abuses, but it should blame itself for not acting sooner.

03.05.15 5:20 AM ET

Those revolting racist emails that hit the news turn out to be just a few of many such missives written by cops and court clerks in Ferguson.

“Our review of documents revealed many additional email communications that exhibited racial or ethnic bias, as well as other forms of bias,” says the U.S. Department of Justice report on the Ferguson police.

The report then turns even more disturbing.

“Our investigation has not revealed any indication that any officer or court clerk engaged in these communications was ever disciplined.”

The report goes on, “Nor did we see a single instance in which a police or court recipient of such an email asked that the sender refrain from sending such emails, or any indication that these emails were reported as inappropriate. Instead, the emails were usually forwarded along to others.”

In other words, emails such as the one that depicted President Obama as a chimpanzee were generally considered acceptable.

But that should not be surprising in a system that routinely trampled the Constitution, tolerating police brutality and racial profiling so long as the cops were writing enough tickets to fill the city’s coffers.

“Ferguson’s unlawful law enforcement practices,” the report calls it.

One question the report does not address is why these outrages were allowed to go on for so long—how a section of America’s heartland was permitted to become a realm where constitutional rights were violated as a matter of course.

Ironies abound in the DOJ releasing this report at the same time it announced that Officer Darren Wilson would not be charged with civil rights violations in the killing of Michael Brown.

The nationwide outrage over Brown’s murder sparked the DOJ’s investigation into the Ferguson police as a whole.

But were it not for that killing, Ferguson likely would have just continued to be a city of civil wrongs.

And one culpable party that escaped blame in the DOJ report was the DOJ itself for having done nothing to stop it. 

The DOJ is not supposed to be just reactive. It needs to be proactive, out there, enforcing the law in the way of a good cop on patrol, not just waiting for a case to hit the front page.

At least the DOJ report does not exclusively heap all the blame on the 54 members of the Ferguson Police Department.

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“Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs,” the report says. “This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community.”

The report notes that in 2010, the city finance director wrote to the Ferguson police chief saying, “Unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year.... Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.”

In 2013, the city’s finance director said in an email to another official, “Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try.”

The cops were prodded not just to make traffic stops, but also to issue multiple tickets at a time. Citizens who did not have the funds available immediately often missed the designated court appearance.

“Some individuals fear that if they cannot immediately pay the fines they owe, they will be arrested and sent to jail,” the report says. “Ferguson court staff members told us that they believe the high number of missed court appearances in their court is attributable, in part, to this popular belief. These fears are well founded.”

The DOJ did not fail to take note of the cops’ own statistics regarding who was hit with summonses.

“Data collected by the Ferguson Police Department from 2012 to 2014 shows that African Americans account for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67% of Ferguson’s population,” the DOJ says.

Ferguson city officials sought to explain the disparity by suggesting to the DOJ that blacks “lack personal responsibility.”

At the same time, the DOJ notes, “white City officials condone a striking lack of personal responsibility among themselves and their friends. Court records and emails show City officials, including the Municipal Judge, the Court Clerk, and FPD supervisors assisting friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and themselves in eliminating citations, fines, and fees.”

In August of 2013, even as the city was pressing the cops to squeeze more money out of its citizens, Ferguson’s mayor emailed the prosecutor about an acquaintance who had received a parking ticket.

“[The man] shouldn’t have left his car unattended there, but it was an honest mistake,” the mayor wrote, adding, “I would hate for him to have to pay for this, can you help?”

The prosecutor obliged.

In November of 2011, a court clerk got an emailed request from a pal to “fix a parking ticket” for a friend of a friend’s wife.

“It’s gone baby!” the clerk emailed after it was done.

In March of 2014, another court clerk got a similar request and replied, “Your ticket of $200 has magically disappeared!” The beneficiary subsequently asked for two more tickets to be nixed, inquiring, “Can you work your magic again?”

By contrast, a black woman with no such connections ended up being jailed for six days because of two parking tickets she received for a single violation in 2007. Financial troubles compounded by homelessness left her unable to pay the original $151 fine and the court refused to accept her repeated attempts at partial payment. A warrant was issued for her arrest. She had to pay $550 to spring herself, but she still faced the rest of a compounded fine.  

“As of December 2014, over seven years later, despite initially owing a $151 fine and having already paid $550, she still owed $541,” the DOJ reports.

And all the while, Ferguson cops were being pushed to make more stops and write more tickets—so many that there was an average of three outstanding warrants for every household in Ferguson.

“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 DOJ says.  “Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on ‘productivity,’ meaning the number of citations issued.”

The policies could only have undermined the cops’ self-respect and sense of mission.

“This culture within FPD influences officer activities in all areas of policing, beyond just ticketing,” the report observes. “Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. 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.”

The report adds, “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. The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause.”

The report cites the example of a man who refused to allow a cop to search his car and found himself arrested at gunpoint on charges that could only fly in Ferguson.

“One charge, Making a False Declaration, was for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of “Michael”), and an address which, although legitimate, was different from the one on his driver’s license,” the DOJ says. “Another charge was for not wearing a seat belt, even though he was seated in a parked car. The officer also charged the man both with having an expired operator’s license, and with having no operator’s license in his possession.”

The DOJ adds, “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.”

In another instance, a shopkeeper used 911 to call the police chief to complain about a cop who had arrested one of her workers for jaywalking. She was arrested for misuse of 911.

And then there was the case last June, when a cop spied the parents of two young children allowing them to pee in bushes during a jaunt to a park.

“An officer stopped them, threatened to cite [the parents] for allowing the children to ‘expose themselves,’ and checked the father for warrants,” DOJ says. “When the mother asked if the officer had to detain the father in front of the children, the officer turned to the father and said, “You’re going to jail because your wife keeps running her mouth.”

The report goes on, “The mother then began recording the officer on her cellphone. The officer became irate, declaring, “You don’t videotape me!” As the officer drove away with the father in custody for “parental neglect,” the mother drove after them, continuing to record.”

The report continues, “The officer then pulled over and arrested her for traffic violations. When the father asked the officer to show mercy, he responded, “no more mercy, since she wanted to videotape,” and declared, “nobody videotapes me.” The officer then took the phone, which the couple’s daughter was holding. After posting bond, the couple found that the video had been deleted.”

One case the DOJ report does not mention is that of Henry Davis.

As has been reported in The Daily Beast, the 57-year-old construction worker was on his way home five years ago when he was pulled over by a Ferguson cop for no apparent reason and taken in on a warrant that he insisted had to be for another Henry Davis.

At Ferguson police headquarters, cops determined that the subject of the warrant was indeed somebody else of the same surname but with a different middle name and Social Security number.

“I said, ‘I told you guys it wasn’t me,’” Davis later testified.

He recalled the booking officer saying, “We have a problem.”

Rather than free Davis with the apology he deserved, the cops threw him in a cell anyway. He objected and four cops allegedly joined in beating him.

They then charged him with destruction of property because he ended up bleeding on their uniforms.

“On and/or about the 20th day of Sept. 20, 2009 at or near 222 S. Florissant within the corporate limits of Ferguson, Missouri, the above named defendant did then and there unlawfully commit the offense of ‘property damage’ to wit did transfer blood to the uniform,” the charge sheet read.

Davis subsequently sued in federal court, which brought it close enough to the DOJ to make you wonder why the department did not investigate back then, five years before Michael Brown. A U.S. magistrate tossed the case, saying among other things that Davis’s injuries were not severe enough, even though he had suffered a gash in his head and a concussion. 

The DOJ report released this week does go back in Ferguson history to the 1960s, noting that prior to then it was a “sundown town,” banning blacks at night. The main road to a nearby black enclave was closed, though a smaller street was open so the domestic help could come and go.

Ferguson has progressed since then, but nowhere near enough; and the sorry truth is that it took Michael Brown’s death to make the DOJ take notice.

Brown may not have been the victim of a civil rights violation. But the poisonous atmosphere generated by a municipal fiscal system based on civil rights violations surely helped spark the violent confrontation between him and Wilson.

Even as it exonerated Wilson, the DOJ itself did not stand blameless.

Meanwhile the folks who wrote those emails are still on the job in a former sundown town whose population is now overwhelmingly black, while all but one of the six members of its city council are white, along with all but four of its 54 cops. Those white council members happen to include a former police officer who was among the four Davis accused of beating him.

The imbalance on the city council may change radically in April as a black electorate seems awakened to the importance of local elections it has largely skipped in the past.

The police department will remain overwhelmingly white. The DOJ does make clear that the FPD also has many good cops.

“Notwithstanding our findings about Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement and the policing culture it creates, we found many Ferguson police officers and other City employees to be dedicated public servants striving each day to perform their duties lawfully and with respect for all members of the Ferguson community,” the DOJ says. “The importance of their often-selfless work cannot be overstated.”

The report says that cops voiced a wish to establish better relations with the black community. One officer said the cops are unable to “get out of the car and play basketball with the kids.”

“We’ve removed all the basketball hoops— there’s an ordinance against it,” the cop told the DOJ.