Just about a week ago, the Department of Justice issued its scathing 102-page report detailing the racist and unconstitutional practices of Ferguson courts and cops. I read some of it at the gym, some on buses and trains, and finally finished it tonight. The report is as appalling as it is important, and it should be required reading and study in criminal justice classes, especially for future police officers. (Click on link at end of article for full report.)
Ferguson’s lessons go far beyond the abusive, racist police department. The first section in the report unmasks the collaboration of the court system and the police in raising revenue. That’s right — their primary objective is not law enforcement, but making money for the city:
“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. This has led to court practices that violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements. The court’s practices also impose unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American individuals, and run counter to public safety.” (DOJ report, p. 3)
All of the police and court practices are oriented toward making money. The report cites the case of a woman who received a ticket for illegal parking in 2007. Have you ever had a parking ticket? I have — but the fine has never been $151 plus court fees. Because of her poverty and occasional homelessness, the woman failed to pay on time, so she got more tickets for failure to appear and failure to pay.
“From 2007 to 2014, the woman was arrested twice, spent six days in jail, and paid $550 to the court for the events stemming from this single instance of illegal parking. Court records show that she twice attempted to make partial payments of $25 and $50, but the court returned those payments, refusing to accept anything less than payment in full. … This woman is now making regular payments on the fine. As of December 2014, over seven years later, despite initially owing a $151 fine and having already paid $550, she still owed $541.” (DOJ report, p. 4)
Then there’s the sheer racism of the police department. The numbers make a case:
“[From 2012 to 2014], African Americans account for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67% of Ferguson’s population. African Americans are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops … but are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers. … Nearly 90% of documented force used by FPD officers was used against African Americans.”
The combination of racism and revenue-raising almost defies description. One of Ferguson’s most popular charges seems to be “Manner of Walking in Roadway,” along with “Failure to Comply” with an officer’s order. Just today, I walked in the roadway half a dozen times — because there was no sidewalk, because there was water across the sidewalk, because … but it doesn’t really matter. In St. Paul, no one is going to make an arrest for “Manner of Walking in Roadway.” And St. Paul is a much larger city, with a lot more traffic than Ferguson.
Using the criminal justice system for the primary purpose of raising revenue is a perversion of the concept of justice. Ignoring the blatant racism manifested not only in police conduct, but in their words and emails violates the spirit and the letter of the constitution.
This report should be required reading in all criminal justice courses for police officers. Reading the horrific stories of police abuse provides vivid evidence of how NOT to police. The clear evidence of racism and vivid individual stories bring home the consequences for the community and for policing. The final section on necessary changes provides a step-by-step description of how police (and courts) can, should and must be responsible to the communities they serve. The case law cited and the analysis of the DOJ set out the constitutional limits that police must observe.
At the observances of the 50th anniversary of Selma this weekend, Michael Brown’s mother told Democracy Now that she thought the entire Ferguson police department “should be disbarred and maybe took over by a more—you know, a better set of people, maybe even just fire them all and just hire in some new cops.” That hasn’t happened yet, but the DOJ is insisting on major changes.
Ronald J. Brockmeyer, the Ferguson municipal judge responsible for the violations outlined in the report, resigned on March 8, and the Missouri Supreme Court appointed a state appeals court judge to take over the Ferguson municipal court. That’s a first step. Much more must be done.