The Ferguson Police Department (FPD) arrested 460 individuals for outstanding warrants between October 2012 and October 2014: 96% of those arrested were African American. According to the DOJ report, from 2011-2013, African Americans accounted for 95% of Manner of Walking in Roadway charges, 94% of Failure to Comply charges, 92% of Resisting Arrest charges, 92% of Peace Disturbance charges, and 89% of Failure to Obey charges. “Despite making up 67% of the population, African Americans accounted for 85% of FPD’s traffic stops, 90% of FPD’s citations, and 93% of FPD’s arrests from 2012 to 2014.” The race-based enforcement tactics and strategies employed by the FPD have a disparate impact on African Americans that is violative of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment…
The FPD also engages in a standard (and unlawful) practice of arresting individuals for engaging in activities that are protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution: “people are punished for talking back to officers, recording public police activities, and lawfully protesting perceived injustices.”…
The DOJ report found that the FPD regulates the activities and behavior of Ferguson’s African-American residents, workers, students, and visitors through enforcement strategies designed to raise revenue rather than to protect the public, and that it does so in collusion with the municipal court and the city government… These procedures, combined with race-based and pervasive violations of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, serve to de-legitimate the Ferguson Police Department…
So what is to be done going forward? Nothing short of this: The Ferguson Police Department itself should be disbanded and dissolved. Ta-Nehisi Coates has called the FPD “the gangsters of Ferguson” and, like any organized criminal gang, they should be dismantled and dispersed.
As the Justice Department’s report highlights, Ferguson, like many other jurisdictions and even the federal government, has been using police powers more aggressively for minor matters that have more to do with raising money than preserving the public order. The city, DOJ noted, “budgets for sizable increases in municipal fines and fees each year, exhorts police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases, and closely monitors whether those increases are achieved … Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, 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.”
This is a sad byproduct of the national trend toward excessive criminalization, egregious use of civil forfeiture and other practices that encourage police to harass citizens like Garner for trifling, victimless offenses. When a police force is used this way, it fosters distrust of law enforcement.
Most cops just want to do their jobs and protect the public. But the trend toward over criminalization undermines their ability to do so. It increases the frequency of police confrontations with citizens who are not really part of the problem. This erodes goodwill. For many, especially those picked on most often, it turns the police into the enemy. It saps the public’s willingness to give police the benefit of the doubt when they actually do deserve it.
The complex question of the relationship between wealth and race comes into play here, but it might reasonably be said that this practice — of police and prosecutors and courts together — disproportionately affects black communities not because they are black, but because they are poor. They do not have the means to escape the justice apparatus, unlike the comparatively wealthy, who can pay a fine and be done with the matter — or hire an attorney, and inconvenience courts that prefer the ease of collecting fees to the challenge of arbitrating cases. To this effect, Balko quotes Thomas Harvey, an attorney for ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis–based legal-aid group: “These are people who make the same mistakes you or I do — speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, forgetting to get your car inspected on time. The difference is that they don’t have the money to pay the fines. . . . When you can’t pay the fines, you get fined for that, too. And when you can’t get to court, you get an arrest warrant.”
This is what happens in Ferguson. The white population is comparatively wealthy, and it lives in neighborhoods that have very low crime rates. The police do not expend time or resources extensively policing those areas. Much of Ferguson’s black population, though, lives in a fairly compact region, parts of which have high crime rates, and so are intensively policed. The tendency of police to be on the lookout for crime combines with the pressures to prove productivity and the knowledge that poorer residents are the most squeezable turnips. In such a situation, who can be surprised that racial tensions have been increasing for years?
In my town, if you were poor or lacked connections, “the rules” applied to you with a vengeance. After all, someone had to pay the city’s bills. There was no escaping speeding tickets, zoning officials were ruthless, and each interaction with the unyielding authorities carried with it the threat of immediate escalation, sometimes without justification. A friend of mine was once beaten senseless by a local police officer after a traffic stop — all because he was dating the cop’s ex-girlfriend.
Because of this experience, I often shudder when I hear conservatives extolling the virtues of “local control” or “local authorities” — as if local officials are somehow inherently more virtuous than the feds. Government is prone to corruption at all levels — especially when under the hammerlock of one-party rule (the Democrats ruled my town). Make no mistake, I love my hometown, and I love the people in it, but that love has nothing to do with its government…
We often take for granted the rule of law. If you are blessed to live in a town where the officials are relatively clean, or if you’re among the class of people that officials fear to cross, then public institutions seem benign — helpful, even. But there are millions of our fellow citizens who live a different reality, under the authority of different kinds of public officials — officials who view them as virtual ATMs, regardless of their ability to pay. And when the government imposes that mindset on police officers, forcing men and women who are trained to respond to (and anticipate) the most violent incidents to essentially become the armed tax collectors of a corrupt system, then that government is unjust, and its officials must be made to feel the bite of the Constitution that they’ve willfully and continually abused.
The Right should be raising a cry over the abuses documented in the Ferguson report.
That would be true even if we entirely dismissed the possibility of racial bias. Conservatives fancy themselves zealous protectors of constitutional rights. They are suspicious of government power. They are hostile to bureaucratic corruption, however petty. And they oppose the confiscation of wealth without compelling reasons. The Ferguson report gives them much to object to in every one of these categories.
It is remarkable that many on the right have instead dismissed the report without even reading it — as if psychologizing Eric Holder or cross-referencing generic arguments about disparate impact and crime rates obviated the need to reckon with the Justice Department’s specific findings.
It seems to me that a kind of team-sport mentality has prevailed. Conservatives do not like sweeping denunciations of the entire criminal justice system as racist, and they especially do not like violent protests, looting, and attacks on policemen — all very rightly. But from there, too many conservatives have come to see any criticism of police conduct, or any allegation of racism, as if it were a play by the opposing team. They duly boo. Instead, they should reflect that all that is correct in their defense of the police is compromised by the extension of that defense to anything unworthy of it.
The practices of the FPD and Municipal Court are destructive to freedom and in blatant violation of our constitutional rights, and they depend for sufferance on the fact that most people are not willing (or, in the case of most of Ferguson’s residents, able) to mount an expensive legal fight for relatively trivial amounts of money such as are involved in a traffic ticket. Evidence of the Ferguson PD’s knowledge of their blatantly unconstitutional practices (especially with respect to the habitual issuance of arrest warrants for missing a payment) is shown in the report by the way that the Municipal Court regularly drops these warrants as soon as a defendant appears with counsel.
I am singularly unimpressed with the argument that the report should be dismissed because it is the product of the Holder DOJ’s dissatisfaction at the resolution of the Michael Brown case. The implicit admission in such an argument is that many police departments are worse; if so, the proper response is not to excuse the Ferguson PD but rather to acknowledge that there are, in fact, systemic problems that exist on a widespread basis that should also be solved.
These problems, largely, have their root in the first matter highlighted above – that many municipal police departments face increasing and unrelenting pressure from city hall to fill increasingly wide gaps in revenue with money from fines and citations. Even a well-intentioned police officer who respects freedom, the citizenry, and vulnerable populations can succumb to temptation when his paycheck and his ability to feed his family is put on the line. And in those cases, where legitimate offenses do not occur, he will be sorely tempted to create them, and to create them among the portion of the populace that is least likely to complain and least likely to be believed when they do complain: non-wealthy black citizens…
We can do better than our response to the Ferguson DOJ report. And our country deserves better from us.
Here’s the thing — take away all the Justice Department’s commentary. Strip away all the accusations and commentary and written implications. Just read the Ferguson City Government in its own words. What you find is exactly what Leon Wolf wrote. This is a city that is profoundly corrupt, that uses law enforcement as revenue agents, and targets the poor because they are least likely to push back.
If you must make a partisan point, go ahead and point out that this is a Democrat Party run city. But we should not have to descend into partisan points.
The City of Ferguson has failed its citizens. We should all be horrified. We should not make it political and we should not defend Ferguson, MO. Do not descend into that which we often accuse the other side of becoming. Be outraged, but not at Eric Holder. Be outraged at the people who govern Ferguson, MO.
The conservative movement has made tremendous progress on race. Today, the vast majority of self-identified conservatives would unwaveringly favor federal intervention if any state tried to segregate its lunch counters or water fountains (and no state legislature would even consider that agenda). But the conservative reaction to the Ferguson report nevertheless suggests that, for ideological and political reasons, the movement remains unable to recognize instances in which local tyranny and frequent violations of Constitutional rights justify outside intervention.
Instead, they’re hyper-focused on contesting the progressive movement’s narrative of race in America, as if operating in reaction is the best use of their energy. On a given day, if there’s a documented instance of police brutality, a black man revealed to be wrongly imprisoned by a DNA test, and an inane remark made by Al Sharpton, the last is most likely to be mentioned on Fox News or talk radio…
Having criticized the protestors who brought the nation’s attention to Ferguson and the DOJ investigators who’ve done more than anyone to document serious abuses there, how would conservatives suggest uncovering and remedying egregious Constitutional violations in municipalities like it?
I’ve never seen the question answered well. And I can’t help but wonder if the American Fergusons would be ignored entirely if conservatives were running the country, just as present-day injustices tend to be downplayed or left out of conservative media when they cut against the conservative counter-narrative on race.
“Are you kidding me?” Levy replied. “Everything in that report was utterly reprehensible,” he added, saying conservatives can’t tout the Constitution and then ignore First and Fourth Amendment violations committed disproportionately against African-Americans. “That sh*t was disgusting.”