In August of 2014, Ferguson, Missouri, and the surrounding towns erupted in violence as outraged protesters clashed with police following the shooting death of local teen Michael Brown. In November, that city was again rocked by riots and protests after a local grand jury determined that the officer responsible for that shooting did not violate the law when he used lethal force to subdue Brown.
At the heart of these clashes was the contention that racial bias – in the actions of Officer Darren Wilson, in the efforts of riot police to suppress peaceful demonstrators as well as rioters, and in the grand jury’s refusal to recommend an indictment — played a significant role in igniting unrest in that community. On Tuesday, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division confirmed many of the anti-police protesters’ worst suspicions when they determined that the Ferguson Police Department engaged in a “pattern and practice” of discrimination targeting African-Americans.
Among the findings, reviewed by CNN: from 2012 to 2014, 85% of people subject to vehicle stops by Ferguson police were African-American; 90% of those who received citations were black; and 93% of people arrested were black. This while 67% of the Ferguson population is black.
In 88% of the cases in which the Ferguson police reported using force, it was against African-Americans. During the period 2012-2014 black 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.
Blacks were disproportionately more likely to be cited for minor infractions: 95% of tickets for “manner of walking in roadway,” essentially jaywalking, were against African-Americans. Also, 94% of all “failure to comply” charges were filed against black people.
These shocking and disturbing allegations are certain to reignite the debate over the appropriateness of police conduct in the case involving Brown’s shooting and the department’s response to subsequent public unrest.
The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery, the reporter who has perhaps most extensively covered the turmoil in Ferguson, filed a dispatch on Tuesday night that indicates the public’s outrage over this police department’s abuses is again set to explode.
“Ray Charles could see the institutional racism that’s going on here in Ferguson,” said state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal. Chappelle-Nadal said she is eager to read the full report, and is outraged by details reported by the Washington Post and other media outlets. Specifically, she is incensed by statistics showing black people being bitten by police dogs while in custody.
“I’m disturbed by what I’m reading,” she said. “We’re allowing police dogs to bite people? What is this, 1955?”
An outspoken critic of Ferguson’s police chief and major, she said both should resign.
“They need to get rid of the police chief, that’s the first thing they should do,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “They should have disbanded this police department in August.”
The only circumstances that would prevent the press from descending en masse upon his beleaguered Show Me State city again is the fact that there is no shortage of news to cover this week. From Hillary Clinton’s latest scandals, to fallout from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, to machinations in the federal legislature resulting from the GOP’s failure to forestall the implementation of Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration, the nation’s newsroom editors may determine that they are spinning too many plates to add another into the mix. While it would be a tragedy if the media engaged again in the thinly-veiled stoking of racial violence, this is a story that demands and deserves national attention.
Both these things can be true: Officer Wilson acted in a manner consistent with standard law enforcement procedures and the department in which he served engaged in racially discriminatory practices. But that assumption needs to be tested, and the media would only be observing the duty to expose injustice if they were to again turn a critical eye toward Ferguson.