DOJ Report on Ferguson Police Department Lists Many, Many Possible Civil-Rights Violations

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FLORRISSANT, MO - AUGUST 20:  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (L) talks with Capt. Ron Johnson, right, of the Missouri State Highway Patrol at Drake's Place Restaurant,August 20, 2014 in Florrissant, Missouri. Holder is traveling to Ferguson, Mo., to oversea the federal government's investigation into the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer on Aug. 9th. Holder promised a "fair and thorough" investigation into the fatal shooting of a young blackman, Michael Brown, who was unarmed when a white police officer shot him multiple times. (Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images)
Attorney General Eric Holder with a Ferguson State TrooperPhoto: Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images

Initial reports hinted that “upsetting” details were going to be revealed in the Justice Department’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. On Wednesday, the whole report was released to the public; headlines of stories reporting the contents described it as “damning” and “shocking.”

The DOJ concluded that its investigators “uncovered significant evidence showing that racial bias has impermissibly played a role in shaping the actions of police and court officials in Ferguson.”

The evidence in the report included emails written by police officers filled with stereotypes. One email referred to President Obama as a chimpanzee; another sent in November 2008 said that Obama wouldn’t be president for long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”

Another email featured an attached photo of “a bare-chested group of dancing women, apparently in Africa.” It was captioned, “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.” In June 2011, an officer wrote of a man looking for “welfare” for his dogs because they are “mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddies are.” The DOJ was unable to find proof that officers were reprimanded for these emails, or told to refrain from sending them. Only four of Ferguson’s 54 commissioned police officers are black.

There were many more examples of racial bias in the report.

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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 manfell to the floor, the officer said,“ don’t pass out motherf****r because I’m not carrying you to my car.”  Another young man described walking with friends in July 2014 past a group of FPD officers who shouted racial epithets at them as they passed.

The DOJ report outlines instances in which the FPD violated the Fourth Amendment by conducting illegal stop and arrests against African-Americans:

In October 2012, police officers pulled over an African-American man who had lived in Ferguson for 16 years, claiming that his passenger-side brake light was broken. The driver happened to have replaced the light recently and knew it to be functioning properly. Nonetheless, according to the man’s written complaint, one officer stated, “let’s see how many tickets you’re going to get,” while a second officer tapped his Electronic Control Weapon (“ECW”) on the roof of the man’s car. The officers wrote the man a citation for “taillight/reflector/license plate light out.” They refused to let the man show them that his car’s equipment was in order, warning him, “don’t you get out of that car until you get to your house.” The man, who believed he had been racially profiled, was so upset that he went to the police station that night to show a sergeant that his brakes and license plate light worked.

At times, the constitutional violations are even more blatant. An African-American man recounted an experience he had while sitting at a bus stop near Canfield Drive. According to the man, an FPD patrol car abruptly pulled up in front of him. The officer inside, a patrol lieutenant, rolled down his window and addressed the man:

Lieutenant: Get over here.

Bus Patron: Me?

Lieutenant: Get the f*** over here. Yeah, you.

Bus Patron: Why? What did I do?

Lieutenant: Give me your ID.

Bus Patron: Why?

Lieutenant: Stop being a smart ass and give me your ID.

The lieutenant ran the man’s name for warrants. Finding none, he returned the ID and said, “get the hell out of my face.” These allegations are consistent with other, independent allegations of misconduct that we heard about this particular lieutenant, and reflect the routinely disrespectful treatment many African Americans say they have come to expect from Ferguson police. 

In November 2013, an officer approached five African-American young people listening to music in a car. Claiming to have smelled marijuana, the officer placed them under arrest for disorderly conduct based on their “gathering in a group for the purposes of committing illegal activity.” The young people were detained and charged— some taken to jail, others delivered to their parents— despite the officer finding no marijuana, even after conducting an inventory search of the car.

The report also says the FPD uses a police-run “wanted” system to circumvent the courts, allowing them to identify and arrest suspects without procuring an arrest warrant first:

In December 2014, a Ferguson detective investigating a shooting emailed a county prosecutor to see if a warrant for a suspect could be obtained, since “a lot of state agencies won’t act on a wanted.” The prosecutor responded stating that although“[c]hances are” the crime was committed by the suspect, “we just don’t have enough for a warrant right now.” The detective responded that he would enter a wanted.

The report also states that the FPD frequently deploys excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment:

For example, in August 2010, a lieutenant used an ECW (Electronic Control Weapon) in drive-stun mode against an African-American woman in the Ferguson City Jail because she had refused to remove her bracelets.

In December 2011, officers deployed a canine to bite an unarmed 14-year-old African-American boy who was waiting in an abandoned house for his friends. Four officers, including a canine officer, responded to the house mid-morning after a caller reported that people had gone inside. Officers arrested one boy on the ground level. Describing the offense as a burglary in progress even though the facts showed that the only plausible offense was trespassing, the canine officer’s report stated that the dog located a second boy hiding in a storage closet under the stairs in the basement. The officer peeked into the space and saw the boy, who was 5’5” and 140 pounds, curled up in a ball, hiding. According to the officer, the boy would not show his hands despite being warned that the officer would use the dog. The officer then deployed the dog, which bit the boy’s arm, causing puncture wounds.

These incidents are not without repercussions for those wrongfully arrested:

Even relatively routine misconduct by Ferguson police officers can have significant consequences for the people whose rights are violated. For example, in the summer of 2012, a 32-year-old African-American man sat in his car cooling off after playing basketball in aFerguson public park.An officer pulled up behind the man’s car, blocking him in, and demanded the man’s Social Security number and identification. Without any cause, the officer accused the man of being a pedophile, referring to the presence of children in the park, and ordered the man out of his car for a pat-down, although the officer had no reason to believe the man was armed. The officer also asked to search the man’s car. The man objected, citing his constitutional rights. In response, the officer arrested the man, reportedly at gunpoint, charging him with eight violations of Ferguson’s municipal code. One charge, Making a False Declaration, was for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of“Michael”), and an address which, although legitimate, was different from the one on his driver’s license. Another charge was for not wearing a seat belt, even though he was seated in a parked car. The officer also charged the man both with having an expired operator’s license, and with having no operator’s license in his possession. The man told us that, because of these charges,he lost his job as a contractor with the federal government that he had held for years.

When residents have complained about the police department, the DOJ found that punishment was rare.

A lieutenant of a neighboring agency called FPD to report that a pizza parlor owner  had complained to him that an off-duty FPD officer had become angry upon being told that police discounts were only given to officers in uniform and said to the restaurant owner as he was leaving, “I hope you get robbed!” The allegation was not considered a complaint and instead, despite its seriousness, was handled through counseling at the squad level.

The DOJ also accused the Ferguson municipal court of civil-rights violations. “The Ferguson municipal court handles most charges brought by FPD, and does so not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue,” the report contends.

$75 “Failure to Appear” charges have been the biggest moneymaker for the court system. In 2013, the court collected  $442,901 in “Failure to Appear” charges — 24 percent of the court’s total revenue. Over the past three years, the court issued one of these charges — which rise to more than $100 after additional court fees — per every two summonses or citations. These fines were repealed by the City Council in September 2014, but preexisting fees are still owed.

The DOJ also found several cases when defendants were arrested for asking questions about their citation, while others were arrested for refusing to answer questions — which raised Fifth Amendment red flags. Residents told federal investigators that they often skipped court because of a fear they would be arrested. The report notes that “as of December 2014, over 16,000 people had outstanding arrest warrants that had been issued by the court. In fiscal year 2013 alone, the court issued warrants to approximately 9,007 people. Many of those individuals had warrants issued on multiple charges, as the 9,007 warrants applied to 32,975 different offenses.” The report goes on to say, “The large number of warrants issued by the court, by any count, is due exclusively to the fact that the court uses arrest warrants and the threat of arrest as its primary tool for collecting outstanding fines for municipal code violations.”

The report also found that:

• “Despite making up 67% of the population, African Americans accounted for 85% of FPD’s traffic stops, 90% of FPD’s citations, and 93% of FPD’s arrests from 2012 to2014.”

• “African Americans are 2.07 times more likely to be searched during a vehicular stop but are 26% less likely to have contraband found on them during a search.They are 2.00 times more likely to receive a citation and 2.37 times more likely to be arrested following a vehicular stop.”

• “African Americans are 68% less likely than others to have their cases dismissed by the Municipal Judge, and in 2013 African Americans accounted for 92% of cases in which an arrest warrant was issued.”

• “Of the 2,369 charges filed against white defendants in 2011, over 63% were closed after six months. By contrast, only 34% of the 10,984 charges against black defendants were closed within that time period.”