The Justice Department on Wednesday released what Attorney General Eric Holder described as a "searing" report on the patterns and practices of the Ferguson Police Department that were both discriminatory and unconstitutional.
The investigation, Holder said in remarks delivered at the agency, found a community "where both policing and municipal court practices were found to be disproportionately harmful to African-American residents, a community where this harm frequently appears to stem, at least in part, from racial bias, both implicit and explicit."
According to DOJ findings, African-American residents of the St. Louis suburb were routinely targeted not because they posed public safety risks, but because they could be forced to pay fines for infractions as minor as a broken windshield wiper or jaywalking. The city essentially used police harassment to help fund itself by collecting $2 million in fees and fines each year. A missed, late or partial payment of a fine could lead to an arrest. The pattern of abuse cost many people their jobs and other opportunities.
In one of the most egregious incidents cited in the report, a Ferguson police officer in the summer of 2012 detained a 32-year-old African-American male who was resting in his car after a playing basketball in a nearby park. The officer approached the car because its windows seemed more heavily tinted than Ferguson's code allowed, which Holder said was justifiable. But for some entirely unjustifiable reason, he accused the man of being a pedophile, prohibited him from using his cell phone and ordered him out of his car for a pat-down search.
When the man refused, citing his constitutional rights, he was arrested on eight different municipal counts and ultimately lost the federal contractor's job he'd held for years.
"Unfortunately, this event appears to have been anything but an isolated incident," Holder said. "Our investigation showed that members of Ferguson's police force frequently escalate rather than defuse tensions with the residents that they encounter, and such actions are sometimes accompanied by First Amendment violations — including arresting people for talking back to officers, for recording their public activities or engaging in other conduct that is constitutionally protected."
The report also included examples of email messages sent by city officials using government accounts that were "unequivocally derogatory, dehumanizing and demonstrative of impermissible bias." An email sent in November 2008 joked that President Obama wouldn't be in office very long because "what black man holds a steady job for four years."
While he would never condone violence of any kind, given this "highly toxic environment," Holder noted, "it's not difficult to image how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg."
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus responded to the report at a press conference following Holder's remarks.
"Many Americans may find this reporting surprising, but to us in the Congressional Black Caucus it simply reaffirms that which we already know," said the group's chairman, Rep. G.K. Butterfield. "For years, the [CBC] has asserted that Black Americans are treated unfairly and disproportionately in the criminal justice system. We know it because we represent those communities and we see it every day. I know it because I served as a trial judge for many years and saw abuses at the law enforcement level and in the administration of justice. Police bias and excessive use of force are real in the African-American community."
For years, calls by Black residents in Ferguson to address these alarming practices by the police department went ignored, Butterfield added, but now the world knows the truth.
"This is a transformative moment for our country and Congress has a critical role to play in helping to restore trust in the criminal justice system to ensure that every American is treated equally before the law," the North Carolina Democrat said.
South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the House's third-most powerful Democrat, said that the problem of police abuse is pervasive in jurisdictions throughout the St. Louis area. He told the story of a woman who was fined for a broken windshield wiper and, because she hasn't been able to pay the fee, she cannot achieve her lifelong dream of joining the Navy.
"These things have a devastating impact on the lives of people. In many instances, they will never get over it. I think it's time for us in this Congress and around the country to come to grips with the fact that this is not isolated to Ferguson," Clyburn said. "These are patterns that we have found throughout our congressional districts all over the country. And we are not playing the race card; we're responding to those who did."
In an interview with BET.com, Rep. William Lacy Clay, whose district includes Ferguson, said he was very satisfied with the findings of the investigation, which he requested last summer.
"It certainly has uncovered some very troubling aspects of policing and the way they police the African-American community. The figures don't lie and they tell me that disproportionately African-Americans have been abused by a criminal justice system that violated four of their constitutional rights and preyed on them economically," Clay said. "The message should be clear to all surrounding police departments: Clean up your act because the Justice Department is looking at you and you're going to change your habits."
Clay wants the city's police department and municipal court system to sign a consent decree to make specific reforms. The Justice Department made 26 recommendations, including anti-bias training, officers getting to know the people and communities they've been hired to serve and ending the practice of harassing residents to fill the city's coffers. If city officials and the DOJ cannot reach an agreement on reforms, the agency could file a lawsuit.
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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