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Friday, May 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Justice Department|Rips Ferguson Police

ST. LOUIS (CN) - The Ferguson Police Department created years of animosity through a pattern of racial profiling that culminated in violent protests after the Michael Brown shooting last year, the Department of Justice said Wednesday in a long-awaited, scathing report.

The 102-page report outlines a pattern of Ferguson Police disproportionately pulling over African-American drivers and using revenue from the tickets to balance the city's budget.

It also shed light on racist emails sent within the city's police department.

Some of the report's highlights included:

- From 2012-14, African-Americans accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of citations, and 93 percent of the arrests, though they make up just 67 percent of Ferguson's population.

- Black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops, but were 26 percent less likely to be caught with contraband.

- In documented cases of use of force by Ferguson police, 88 percent were against African-Americans.

The report also uncovered several racist emails written by unidentified Ferguson police and municipal court officials.

One email from November 2008 stated that Barack Obama could not be president for four years because "what black man holds a steady job for four years?"

Another email, from May 2011, stated: "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.'"

The report criticized Ferguson for using its municipal court and jail as revenue generators. The report states that African-Americans were less likely to have their cases dismissed by a judge in Ferguson's municipal court, twice as likely to have a warrant issued against them, and were more likely to be arrested during traffic stops for outstanding warrants.

The report states that Ferguson has a pattern of putting revenue over public safety, in violation of the 14th Amendment.

It states that Ferguson has collected thousands of dollars in fines from people living below the poverty line, that the city has collected $442,000 for failure to appear fines since 2010, and that the use of the failure to appear charge was discontinued last year.

"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," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.

"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."

Ferguson became ground zero for nationwide anti-police protests, sparked by Michael Brown's death at the hands of Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, on Aug. 9.

In the days immediately after Brown's death, protests on Ferguson streets turned violent, and police used tear gas, flash bangs and rubber bullets to break up the angry mobs. Violence returned on Nov. 24, when protesters burned dozens of Ferguson buildings after a grand jury refused to indict Wilson.

In August, the Department of Justice responded to the unrest by conducting two separate, independent investigations. One was into the police department's policies and procedures. The other was an investigation of the shooting itself to determine whether Wilson violated Brown's civil rights.

Along with the police report, the DOJ announced Wednesday that Wilson will not face federal civil rights charges in the Brown shooting.

The report places Ferguson in the position of either working with the DOJ to make major changes to its police department's policies and procedures - or get sued by the DOJ for civil rights violations.

The former seemed to be the more likely possibility based on comments made by Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III after he was given a copy of the report by DOJ officials Tuesday afternoon.

"It was encouraging to me that there was discussion about how we move forward together and amicably address these issues," Knowles told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Tuesday.

On Monday, a task force formed by President Barack Obama shortly after the Brown killing released a related 101-page report recommending changes to the way police around the country do their jobs.

Some of the recommendations by the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing included: that deadly police shootings be investigated by independent prosecutors; revamping the entire criminal justice system including changing heavy penalties for small drug crimes; ending racial profiling by police; more community policing; and increasing the use of technology such as body cameras.

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