A white police officer who shot and killed a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., last summer was cleared of civil rights violations on Wednesday. The department that employed him? Excoriated.
Officer Darren Wilson said he feared for his safety when he shot Michael Brown, 18, on Aug. 9, 2014. Witnesses who said Brown was trying to surrender provided inconsistent or contradictory accounts, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded. Federal agents found no evidence that Wilson willfully violated Brown’s civil rights.
But a separate, broader investigation found that the Ferguson Police Department violates the civil rights of black residents all the time.
An analysis of two years of police data showed blacks in Ferguson were routinely detained without probable cause and twice as likely as whites to be searched. They were more likely to be pulled over, ticketed or arrested. They were far more likely than whites to be charged with petty offenses such as jaywalking or disturbing the peace.
Those constitutional abuses were largely driven by pressure from the city to raise revenue, Justice found. A growing reliance on fees and fines – disproportionately levied against African-Americans – turned the Police Department into a collection agency, it said.
The investigation showed that police used force, including Tasers, almost exclusively against blacks. In 100 percent of incidents in which a police dog bit a suspect, the victim was black.
The investigation also uncovered racist emails exchanged by police and city officials on their government accounts. President Obama as a chimpanzee. Abortions for black women as a way to reduce crime. And worse.
“Seen in this context, amid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings and spurred by illegal and misguided practices, it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday.
That dynamic is disturbingly familiar in cities across America. That’s why the violent protests that erupted in the streets of Ferguson were echoed in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia, Detroit and elsewhere.
The Ferguson report recommends more than two dozen policing reforms that would typically lead to a negotiated settlement with the Justice Department. Similar agreements are in force in cities including Albuquerque, N.M., New Orleans and Cleveland.
The recommendations could form a template for cities seeking to improve public confidence in law enforcement: more training. Better tracking and review of arrest, search and ticketing practices. Community partnerships. A diverse police force. A transparent system for responding to allegations of police misconduct.
Ferguson’s leaders have said they’d have a hard time coming up with the money to implement those changes. They’ve broached the possibility of contracting out police services to St. Louis County. Many residents of Ferguson would be happy to see the Police Department disbanded. The relationship, they say, is beyond repair.
That distrust can inflame routine interactions between police and citizens, Holder noted Wednesday. “Even in cases where police encounters start off as constitutionally defensible, we found that they frequently and rapidly escalate – and end up blatantly and unnecessarily crossing the line.”
He was talking about Ferguson, but it could have been any number of cities in America. We hope they know who they are.