DOJ findings of racial bias in flashpoint city’s justice system supports residents’ allegations of police abuse
A scathing Justice Department report revealing institutionalized racial bias and stereotyping in the police department and court system in Ferguson, Missouri, underscores the need for a federal law barring racial profiling, say local and national civil rights activists.
“We should outlaw racial profiling. It should be a crime,” said Libero Della Piana, a senior organizer at Alliance for a Just Society, a grass-roots group that works for national policy change. “If you actively reduce the number of racialized encounters, then you also reduce the incidence of these small things becoming killings.”
The DOJ probe released last week — prompted by the Aug. 9 killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson — found substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staffers in the city.
Brown’s death sparked a national debate over discriminatory and militarized policing and drew attention to a series of other cases involving police killings of unarmed black men — including Eric Garner, 43, who died after being put in a chokehold by a New York City police officer; John Crawford, 22, who was fatally shot by police in a Beavercreek, Ohio, Walmart while holding an air rifle that was for sale in the store; and Tamir Rice, 12, who was killed by police in Cleveland, Ohio, while playing with an airsoft gun.
Among evidence the investigation found were racist email correspondence between employees of Ferguson’s justice system. One message joked about an abortion by an African-American woman being a “means of crime control,” the report said.
Those attitudes translated into a disproportionate amount of stops, searches and arrests targeting the city’s black community, the report said. Although African-Americans make up 67 percent of Ferguson’s population, they accounted for 92 percent of arrests from 2012 to 2014, the DOJ found.
“Our investigation indicates that this disproportionate burden on African-Americans cannot be explained by any difference in the rate at which people of different races violate the law,” the report said. “Rather our investigation has revealed that these disparities occur, at least in part, because of unlawful bias against and stereotypes about African-Americans.”
Those findings were not a surprise to anyone in Ferguson, Della Piana said. He said, “It really revealed that what community members and activists said is true. Michael Brown’s death was not in isolation but was part of a whole system of racist practice and policy.”
The report also found that members of the Ferguson Police Department routinely subjected black residents to verbal and physical abuse, supporting similar allegations made by local residents.
“In June 2011 a 60-year-old man complained that an officer verbally harassed him while he stood in line to see the judge in municipal court,” said the DOJ report. “According to the man, the officer repeatedly ordered him to move forward as the line advanced and because he did not advance far enough, turned to other court-goers and joked, ‘He is hooked on phonics.’”
Ferguson police officers also routinely threatened and intimidated African-Americans, the report said, including “threats to draw or fire their weapons, often for seemingly little or no cause.”
The problem of aggressive law enforcement is exacerbated by increasing militarization of local police forces, said Della Piana. “I think we have created a system of policing that’s full of hammers, so when people keep getting pounded into the dirt, it’s not a surprise.”
Ferguson Action, an umbrella group formed in the wake of Brown’s death, included the demilitarization of law enforcement among its list of national demands for police reform. It’s part of an effort to reform the U.S. criminal justice system by petitioning local, state and federal lawmakers.
The group echoed the Alliance for a Just Society’s call for the passage of the federal End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA) — which would prohibit the use of profiling by law enforcement agencies on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin or religion — and requiring the DOJ to assess and report on discriminatory police practices.
Former Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., introduced the ERPA in 2001. It has since been brought to federal legislators several times — the latest time by Rep. John Conyers, D-Md., in 2013 — but has not been passed into law.
Other groups calling for reform say that while a federal ban on racial profiling should be a priority of U.S. lawmakers, there are already rules in place against discrimination that are not being enforced.
“The Civil Rights Act bans discrimination and discriminatory policing, but a lot of those haven’t been enforced,” said Matt Nelson, the organizing director for Color of Change, a group that works to strengthen African-Americans’ political voice. “We’ve had laws in place, even laws that mandate collection of data of people killed by police, but it just hasn’t been done.”
“What’s currently on the books in terms of civil rights are only as effective as they are enforced,” he added.
President Barack Obama could issue an executive order mandating enforcement of the Civil Rights Act’s ban on discriminatory policing, similar to the ERPA, and a second order to mandate collection of data on people killed by police, Nelson said.
“There is quite a lot that President Obama can do that he hasn’t yet, when he said now is the time to transform policing. There are some concrete actions — two executive orders — he can take to move us closer to that reality where folks aren’t getting killed by police at such horrifying rates,” he said.
“We have a situation where nationwide, police kill black Americans at nearly the same rate as Jim Crow–era lynchings. That’s the day-to-day reality that black people in America face, and that has to change,” Nelson said.