Sunday, March 8, 2015

In Ferguson, Reforms Needed to Avert Another Tragedy

          Darren Wilson is in the clear, but the Ferguson, Mo., police department is guilty of a “policy and practice” of illegal and unconstitutional policing, according to detailed reports released last week [March 4] by the U.S. Department of Justice.
          Wilson’s fate matters a lot to the former Ferguson officer and to the family of Michael Brown, the African American teenager shot dead by Wilson on the afternoon of Aug. 9, 2014. But the report by the Justice Department’s civil rights division matters all the more for the people of the St. Louis suburb subjected for years to unjustified stops and arrests, excessive use of force, and racist law enforcement.
          The impact of those policies has been felt in particular by African Americans, who comprise about two-thirds of the town’s population but 85 percent of those subjected to vehicle stops and 93 percent of those arrested. The police department and the municipal court both “reflect and exacerbate” racial bias and stereotyping, according to the 106-page report. The disparities result “at least in part” from “intentional discrimination,” the report concludes.
          The damning report on the department gains credibility from the investigators’ meticulous and balanced 86-page dissection of the evidence in the Brown shooting and the conclusion to bring no federal civil rights charge in the case. The feds’ findings, made public because of “the high interest in the case,” support Wilson’s account of Brown as the initial aggressor in the episode and his claim of self-defense as he fired the fatal rounds with the burly teenager coming at him only a few feet away.
          Were Brown’s hands raised in a surrender as Wilson fired — “Hands up, don’t shoot”? The accounts to that effect by some eyewitnesses sympathetic to Brown were found to be “inconsistent with the physical evidence” or internally inconsistent. There was “no evidence” to contradict Wilson’s fear that he feared for his safety, the DOJ investigators concluded, and his use of force was “objectively reasonable.”
          Any federal civil rights prosecution of Wilson would have been a daunting effort anyway. The government would have had to prove that Wilson willfully deprived Brown of his civil rights for a conviction under 42 U.S.C. §1983. That was never in the cards, so there was no surprise in the department’s conclusion that the case “lacks prosecutive merit and should be closed.” But the detail of the report clears Wilson more convincingly and more credibly than the earlier decision by the St. Louis County grand jury to bring no state charges.
          The portrait of Ferguson suggests, however, that Brown’s death and the ensuing discord were a tragedy waiting to happen. Brown grew up in a community with good reason to mistrust the police. And Wilson, 28 years old and in only his sixth year as a police officer, was part of a department constantly exhorted to generate revenue-producing arrests and citations and indifferent to civilian allegations of misconduct.
          Ferguson officers “expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority,” the report states. “They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence.”
          Witness the incidents cited in the report: a 32-year-old African American man arrested as he sat in his car cooling off after a basketball game; he was charged with eight offenses, including not wearing a seat belt and making a false statement by giving his name as “Mike” instead of “Michael.” Another: a woman tased at the stationhouse for supposedly refusing to remove a bracelet when instructed, with several officers standing close enough to subdue her even if she had been resisting.
          “Failure to comply” is a frequent offense in Ferguson, and 94 percent of those charged with the offense were African American. Or another: “manner of walking in the roadway;” 95 percent of the offenders African American.
          The Ferguson police department apparently recognizes “ped check” as a lawful reason to stop an otherwise law-abiding pedestrian. “Officers invoke the term ‘ped check’ as though it has some unique constitutional legitimacy,” the Justice Department states. “It does not.”
          The pervasive racism within the predominantly white police force is illustrated by the racist emails cited in the report — mocking, among others, President Obama — and the non-response by the department. Until the DOJ report, no one had been disciplined for the messages or even asked to stop. Instead, the emails were “usually” forwarded to others.
          The municipal court is a mockery of justice: an arm of the police department and a major revenue source for the town’s government: fines in the hundreds of dollars for such offenses as “High Grass and Weeds.” Citations must be paid in person, not by mail; the practice generates “failure to appear” citations, which add to the amounts owed. The part-time judge who hands out these fines is cited in the report for having asked the municipal prosecutor to fix a red-light ticket in another town; and The Guardian reported that he owes $170,000 in back taxes.
          The report lays the basis for reforms with a laundry list of recommendations that should have been standard practice without input from Washington. Asked about the report on Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder said he was prepared to “dismantle” the department if necessary. Thoroughgoing reform cannot come soon enough, perhaps in time to avert another tragedy.

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