Back in December I wrote that the prevailing belief in the black community, especially for those under the age of 40, is that they do not trust the system to oversee the actions of the police and hold them accountable. While there is no agreement about whether Officer Wilson was justified in his shooting, the absolute lack of faith in the system renders that a moot point.
Indeed, this week, the reports from the US Justice Department validate both views. The first report provides the latest exoneration for Officer Darren Wilson, going so far as to question whether “the hands up, don’t shoot” symbol of the movement has validity. But that finding is undermined by the second report, which hammers the Ferguson Police Department and validates the lack of trust in the black community.
Worse yet, while the shooting of Michael Brown happened in Ferguson, the focus on Ferguson is almost an historical accident – it is neither the only city in St. Louis County nor the worst to suffer these problems.
The report is nothing short of devastating, concluding, “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.”
“This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community,” it continues.
“Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. Ferguson’s own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans,” the DOJ states.
Worse yet, “The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities. Over time, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices have sown deep mistrust between parts of the community and the police department, undermining law enforcement legitimacy among African Americans in particular.”
In a way, the focus on the revenue rather than ensuring public safety really tames the findings. It is easy to point to the racist emails and the quick terminations that resulted from them. But the bigger finding to me is that “routine interactions between officers and black residents quickly escalated.”
The report, for example, cites a 2012 case where a violation of a city code on window tinting resulted in the illegal pat down of a black man. He would ultimately be arrested on eight offenses, including “making a false declaration” by giving his nickname instead of the name on his license. Over the course of the arrest, the officer accused him of being a pedophile, asked to search his car without cause and reportedly held a gun to his head.
The report also notes that the Ferguson Police Department used Tasers and dogs in excess on black suspects.
In 2013, in one prominent example, police chased down a man who was bitten by an officer’s dog even though the officer had frisked him and knew the man was unarmed. The use of force was then justified by police supervisors with a false statement, suggesting that the officer feared “that the subject was armed.”
Under this backdrop, are we surprised that the public, particularly the black community, is forthcoming with accepting official police versions of incident?
As outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder described it, the Ferguson criminal justice system created “a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices.”
“While there is an issue as to whether his hands were up, the bigger question is whether we as a nation are going to step up to try to bridge this gap of distrust between police and those who they are sworn to protect and serve,” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat of Maryland.
The trust issue continues to undermine even the Justice Department’s conclusions. The Justice Department’s findings about the series of interactions between police and African-American residents of Ferguson suggest that perhaps the interaction between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson may have been avoided with more adroit handling by the officer, or a greater level of trust between the young Michael Brown and the young officer.
Civil rights violations require a very high bar in this case.
Still, as an article that appeared in the New York Times today suggests – Ferguson has become the symbol but bias knows no border.
The Times notes that had Michael Brown been shot about 500 yards to the southeast, he would have been in Jennings, Mo. “The court system there, which is overseen by a white judge but has almost exclusively black defendants, routinely sends people to jail for failure to pay minor traffic fines, a new lawsuit alleges.”
Three and a half miles to the north, and we would be talking about Florissant. The Times notes, “In 2013, the police stopped black motorists at a rate nearly three times their share of the population. Less than four miles to the northwest, in Calverton Park, court fines and fees accounted for over 40 percent of the city’s general operating revenue last year.”
It was, however, the city of Ferguson that came in the crossfire for “explicit racism among city officials, abusive policing and a system that seemed to view people ‘less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.’ And it is Ferguson that will almost certainly be forced to make wholesale changes.”
The Times reports, “Ferguson, a city of 21,000, is unusual in some respects — it has issued the most warrants of any city in the state relative to its size, for example — but the unfairness in its court system that the Justice Department highlighted is not limited to it, to St. Louis County or even to Missouri.”
“Ferguson is one dot in the state, and there are many municipalities in the region engaged in the same practices a mile away,” said Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department’s top civil rights prosecutor. “It would be a mistake for any of those neighboring jurisdictions to fold up their hands. They should absolutely take note of this report.”
Ms. Gupta urged “police and city officials nationwide to read the report on Ferguson and take stock of whether their police and court systems were equally in need of an overhaul.” “The Ferguson report really does highlight some issues that jurisdictions around the country are plagued with,” she said. “Police departments shouldn’t wait for us.”
As Jann Murray-Garcia wrote locally in December, “This (racial) divide is defined by first a stinging difference in the frequency of racial experience as Americans of black race, and two, a lack of trust because of experiences in well-documented excessive use of (lethal) police force, disproportionate, unwarranted law enforcement contact with people of color, and prosecutorial overcharging.”
What police and public officials need to recognize is that, as long as there remains the issue of trust, they will never get the benefit of the doubt.
We may be a nation built on laws, but for too many people in this nation we are a nation built on the rule of two different laws – one that governs privilege and one that governs people of color, and in Ferguson we saw what happens when those two sets of law meet. Without trust, there can be no acceptance of the rule of law.
For that, “hands up, don’t shoot” remains a fundamental iconic image for the breakdown of trust and, until that can restored, more incidents will happen like in Ferguson.
—David M. Greenwald reporting