June 18, 2021

DOJ report alleges constitutional violations by Ferguson Police

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Ferguson-Police-NEWBy Zoe Tillman, Legal Times

During the past five years, African-American residents of Ferguson, Missouri, disproportionately were the victims of discriminatory and illegal conduct by police and court officials, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded in a report released on Wednesday.

The 105-page document depicted an at times lawless police department and court system, more motivated by a desire to increase revenue from tickets and fines than public safety. Investigators described interviews with African-American residents who reported being targeted and harassed by police. In one example cited by the report:

We spoke with one African-American man who, in August 2014, had an argument in his apartment to which FPD officers responded, and was immediately pulled out of the apartment by force. After telling the officer, “You don’t have a reason to lock me up,” he claims the officer responded: “N*****, I can find something to lock you up on.” When the man responded, “Good luck with that,” the officer slammed his face into the wall, and after the man fell to the floor, the officer said, “don’t pass out motherf****r because I’m not carrying you to my car.”

(Redactions in the original.)

The report included excerpts from a series of racist emails involving police and court officials, including a 2011 email depicting President Obama as a chimpanzee and several mocking African-American residents who came into contact with police and the courts.

The Justice Department said in a written statement that it had provided a copy of the report to Ferguson officials and would attempt to reach an agreement on reforms. If that fails, the DOJ could take the city to court.

During a briefing on Wednesday afternoon, Holder characterized the report as “searing,” saying in prepared remarks that investigators “found a community that was deeply polarized; a community where deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents.

“Ensuring meaningful, sustainable and verifiable reform will require that these and other measures be part of a court-enforceable remedial process that includes involvement from community stakeholders as well as independent oversight in order to remedy the conduct we have identified, to address the underlying culture we have uncovered, and to restore and rebuild the trust that has been so badly eroded,” Holder said.

In previous cases in which DOJ found evidence of police misconduct in other cities, the department often reached agreements with local law enforcement that were subject to judicial oversight.

A representative of the Ferguson Police Department could not immediately be reached for comment.

DOJ launched the probe after the fatal shooting last year of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. The department on Wednesday announced that it would not seek federal criminal civil rights charges against Wilson in Brown’s death.

“The evidence, when viewed as a whole, does not support the conclusion that Wilson’s uses of deadly force were ‘objectively unreasonable’ under the Supreme Court’s definition,” the department concluded.

Below are highlights from the Justice Department’s investigation into alleged police misconduct in Ferguson.

Racial bias

According to the report, between 2012 and 2014, African-Americans, who made up 67 percent of the city’s population, accounted for:

85 percent of vehicle stops.

90 percent of citations.

93 percent of arrests.

Also between 2012 and 2014, DOJ reported that Ferguson police:

On 73 occasions issued four or more citations to African-Americans.

Twice issued four or more citations to non-African-Americans.

Between 2010 and 2014, investigators found, 88 percent of documented force used by Ferguson police officers was used against African-Americans.

Incriminating emails

Investigators reported uncovering racist emails sent and received by Ferguson police and court supervisors:

A November 2008 email stated that President Barack Obama would not be president for very long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”

A March 2010 email mocked African-Americans through speech and familial stereotypes, using a story involving child support.

An April 2011 email depicted President Barack Obama as a chimpanzee.

A December 2011 email included jokes that are based on offensive stereotypes about Muslims.

Money-driven policing

Investigators wrote that police practices were shaped by city officials’ demand for increased revenue. According to the report:

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.

DOJ cited correspondence between city officials and police about the need to increase revenue from writing tickets. In one March 2010 note, the city’s finance director wrote to the police chief that revenue from tickets was “not an insignificant issue” because the city was facing a “substantial sales tax shortfall.”

“FPD’s weak systems of supervision, review and accountability … have sent a potent message to officers that their violations of law and policy will be tolerated, provided that officers continue to be ‘productive’ in making arrests and writing citations,” investigators wrote.

Courts on the hook

City court officials were faulted for focusing too much on revenue and taking a hard line on missed court appearances and payments, causing harshly compounded fines for many residents who could not afford to pay them. According to DOJ:

The municipal court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct. Instead, the court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the city’s financial interests.

The court system’s practices exacerbated the police department’s misconduct. The city “uses its police department in large part as a collection agency for its municipal court. Ferguson’s municipal court issues arrest warrants at a rate that police officials have called, in internal emails, ‘staggering.’ ”

According to the report, African-Americans were 68 percent less likely than others to have their cases dismissed by the court.

Unlawful stops and arrests

The report accused police of routinely violating the Fourth Amendment rights of Ferguson residents, especially African-Americans. The following story was recounted two times in the report:

For example, in the summer of 2012, an officer detained a 32-year-old African-American man who was sitting in his car cooling off after playing basketball. The officer arguably had grounds to stop and question the man, since his windows appeared more deeply tinted than permitted under Ferguson’s code. Without cause, the officer went on to accuse the man of being a pedophile, prohibit the man from using his cellphone, order the man out of his car for a pat-down despite having no reason to believe he was armed, and ask to search his car. When the man refused, citing his constitutional rights, the officer reportedly pointed a gun at his head, and arrested him. The officer charged the man with eight different counts, including making a false declaration for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of “Michael”) and an address that, although legitimate, differed from the one on his license. The officer also charged the man both with having an expired operator’s license, and with having no operator’s license in possession.

Excessive force

According to the report:

Many officers are quick to escalate encounters with subjects they perceive to be disobeying their orders or resisting arrest. They have come to rely on [electronic control weapons], specifically Tasers, where less force—or no force at all—would do. They also release canines on unarmed subjects unreasonably and before attempting to use force less likely to cause injury. Some incidents of excessive force result from stops or arrests that have no basis in law.

First Amendment violations

The Justice Department accused police of abusing their power to punish protected speech. According to one story included in the report:

For example, one afternoon in September 2012, an officer stopped a 20-year-old African-American man for dancing in the middle of a residential street. The officer obtained the man’s identification and ran his name for warrants. Finding none, he told the man he was free to go. The man responded with profanities. When the officer told him to watch his language and reminded him that he was not being arrested, the man continued using profanity and was arrested for Manner of Walking in Roadway.

The report noted that Ferguson police were barred by a federal judge from interfering with lawful demonstrations in the aftermath of Brown’s death.

IMAGE: Police line in front of businesses in Ferguson, MO. Photo: Loavesofbread via Wikimedia Commons

For more on this story go to: http://www.nationallawjournal.com/legaltimes/id=1202719613725/DOJ-Report-Alleges-Constitutional-Violations-by-Ferguson-Police#ixzz3TWBQ14CY


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