Ferguson Police Racist, Unconstitutional, Justice Department Says

City will need to make extensive changes or face federal lawsuit

Police force protestors from the business district into nearby neighborhoods in Ferguson, Missouri on August 11th, 2014. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty

Ferguson, Missouri's police department and court system will need extensive retraining and outside oversight to correct the pattern of racial bias and unconstitutional practices that the U.S. government has uncovered. In an eye-opening, 105-page report (viewable as a PDF via The New York Times), the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division detailed years of abuse of authority, racist behavior and unethical moneymaking schemes carried out by city officials.

The Justice Department believed Ferguson was open to making the necessary changes to meet its standards rather than face a federal lawsuit. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles has said the city has begun making changes, according to the Times. "Today's report allows the City of Ferguson to identify problems, not only in our Police Department but in the entire St. Louis region," he said. "We must do better not only as a city, but as a state and as a country. We must all work to address issues of racial disparity in all aspects of society."

The full document expounds on Tuesday's preliminary reports of racial profiling and civil rights violations, illustrating the racial slurs and examples of excessive force that the Justice Department said seemed commonplace in the city for years. As the Times reports, Ferguson police stopped and handcuffed citizens without probable cause, used stun guns without feeling threatened and mistreated residents who attempted to stand up for their constitutional rights.

"Ferguson law enforcement practices are directly shaped and perpetuated by racial bias," the report states. The city's population is about two-thirds African-American, but 93 percent of arrests made were of blacks and the percentage of citizens jailed for more than two days was nearly 100, suggesting that African-American mistrust of authority was well-founded. Ninety-five percent of people charged with jaywalking, a crime that often comes down to what a police officer alone sees and reports, were black.

Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. placed the government's findings in the context of the widely publicized protests and outrage that followed the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, who was shot dead by a white policeman, last summer. "It is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg," he said, calling the city of 21,000 a "highly toxic environment." He also stated that the findings in Ferguson made him question what went on in police departments nationwide.

Among the disturbing findings, police carried out "pedestrian checks," in which they stopped people on the street and demanded to see ID; those who did not comply were typically arrested. Moreover, authority figures within the police department encouraged thuggish behavior, such as using stun guns on people who attempted to assert their rights. "Supervisors seem to believe that any level of resistance justifies any level of force," the report says.

Police also made arrests by using a system they called "wanteds," where officers put a citizen's name in the police's computer system, ensuring an arrest if he or she is stopped by authorities in the future. The report cited one officer who said that he used that tactic if he did not have probable cause for an arrest. The government concluded that Ferguson was more concerned with a high number of arrests than with public safety.

The Justice Department also took issue with the city's court system, whose employees work under the police chief and whose prosecutor is also Ferguson's city lawyer. The City Council appoints the town's judges. In Ferguson, it has not been unusual for people who missed payments, court appearances or showed up on traffic violations to go to jail. Court fines, the Times reports, make a significant source of revenue, and city officials were found congratulating one another on exceeding revenue goals. Authority figures in the town also fixed tickets and citations for one another and their friends.

One of the more alarming findings was the series of racist jokes city officials shared with one another via city e-mail systems; among the recipients are the senior city officials who must decide how to react to the Justice Department's findings. Some of the more questionable e-mails compared President Obama to a monkey, showed a photo of topless African women with a caption suggesting "Michele Obama's High School Reunion" and "joked" that the city should commend black women who get abortions for preventing crime.

Mayor Knowles has said that a police official has been fired for sending offensive emails, and two others are under investigation.

The Justice Department's conclusion outlined 13 improvements the police department needed to make and an additional 13 for the court system. To comply with the government, Ferguson police must now practice "true community policing," refocus stop-and-search routines to emphasize community protection, change its use of force and reduce its racial bias, among other measures. The courts must now emphasize transparency, stop using warrants as a means of collecting owed fines and fees and work with the state and other municipalities on further reforms.

"Our investigation indicates that Ferguson as a city has the capacity to reform its approach to law enforcement," investigators wrote in the report's conclusion.

The Times reports that a few dozen protesters gathered outside the Ferguson Police Department Wednesday after the report was made public. Officers arrested some of the people standing in the streets.