The Police Department in Ferguson, Mo., has persistently and repeatedly violated the constitutional rights of African Americans, jailing them for minor offenses far more often than whites, using traffic stops to arrest them disproportionately and subjecting them to excessive force, a Justice Department investigation has concluded.
The investigation portrays a city in which police dogs were set upon blacks but not whites and where blacks were seven times more likely to be subjected to force than whites, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation’s findings.
Officers and municipal court officials in the St. Louis suburb exchanged racist emails, the investigation found, including one from 2008 predicting that President-elect Barack Obama would not be in office long because, it asked, “what black man holds a steady job for four years”? Another email relayed a joke in which a black woman receives $5,000 for having an abortion and, when she asks why, is told that the money came from the citizens group Crime Stoppers.
The investigative report is expected to be made public as soon as Wednesday. It will form the basis for either a federal civil lawsuit or a negotiated settlement with the city, where a white officer’s fatal shooting of a black man sparked a national outcry.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, City Manager John Shaw, Police Chief Thomas Jackson and City Atty. Stephanie Karr met with federal officials Tuesday to discuss the case, the city said in a statement. Ferguson officials were reviewing the report and would respond after its official release, the statement said.
This will be the Justice Department’s final judgment on Ferguson since, as has been widely forecast, officials are also expected to announce that there will be no federal criminal charges against Officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown, 18. A local grand jury declined to bring charges in November.
Wilson stopped Brown for walking in the street, and their fatal confrontation led to a national debate about race and law enforcement.
The debate intensified after a heavily armed police response to the Ferguson protests generated questions about whether police should be acquiring surplus U.S. military equipment and, if so, under what circumstances they should use it. Ferguson officers’ armored vehicles, assault rifles and body armor often appeared to inflame confrontations with demonstrators.
“They wonder why people reacted the way they did to Michael Brown’s death, and clearly this report shows it’s a natural reaction to how people have been treated over the years,” said Michael T. McPhearson, co-chairman of the Don’t Shoot Coalition in Ferguson.
The group takes its name from what became the demonstrators’ mantra: “Hands up, don’t shoot,” after some witnesses said Brown was shot as he tried to surrender. (Others said he was charging at the officer.)
McPhearson said some of the racist emails highlighted the way police had dehumanized black citizens, whether suspects or not.
“That shows the mentality and how they look at black people. When you’re looking at a whole community, you’re not looking [only] for criminals. You believe the whole community are criminals. Every person is not even worthy of being treated fairly,” McPhearson said. With that approach, “there’s no way you’re going to be able to police a community fairly.”
The Justice Department investigation found that the distrust of the Police Department, particularly by African Americans, was largely attributable to Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement.
A combination of ingrained racial bias and the city’s focus on generating revenue from traffic stops led to routine violations of the Constitution and federal laws, said the law enforcement official, who described the report’s findings to reporters on condition that his name not be released.
Adding to the volatile mix is the fact that while Ferguson’s population is 67% black, its government and police force are predominantly white.
“This confirms what many people have been saying for a long time,” said Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman who was a prominent presence during the protests. “The Ferguson Police Department had a pattern and a culture that targeted minorities.”
The report comes with a ream of statistics that helps explain the anger:
- 85% of people subjected to traffic stops in Ferguson between 2012 and 2014 were African American.
- 90% of those who received a citation and 93% of those arrested were African American.
- Blacks were almost twice as likely as whites to be searched during a traffic stop even though they were less likely to possess contraband.
The same problems extended to Ferguson’s city jail and municipal court, where investigators found a pattern of focusing on revenue over public safety.
The investigation found that African Americans were less likely to have their cases dismissed in court than were whites and were far more likely to be the subjects of arrest warrants. During the two years studied, 96% of people arrested during traffic stops because of outstanding warrants were African American.
For a five-month period last year, 95% of people held at the jail more than two days were African American, and often the charges against blacks were petty offenses such as “manner of walking in roadway.”
Gabe Crocker, president of the St. Louis County Police Assn., said he was eager to see the full report, especially the statistical analysis.
“There’s not a lot of rogue officers out there who are engaging in hard-core bias-based policing,” he said. “The public’s perception is not reality.”
The report marks the latest in a series of investigations the Justice Department has conducted into high-profile, racially charged confrontations. Last month, officials announced that no federal criminal charges would be filed against a former Florida neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old, in 2012.
Still to come are the results of a criminal investigation into an incident last year in New York’s Staten Island in which police killed a black man, Eric Garner, with an apparent chokehold. Civil rights experts say that, much as in the Ferguson case, bringing charges against the police in the Garner killing may be difficult because of the high standard of proof required. But the availability of a video and the extended nature of the struggle may make a prosecution easier than in the other two cases, they said.
Times staff writers Richard A. Serrano in Boston, Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston and Michael Muskal, Matt Pearce and James Queally in Los Angeles contributed to this report.