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Justice Department probe finds racial bias in Ferguson police

In this Nov. 25, 2014 file photo, police officers watch protesters as smoke fills the streets in Ferguson, Mo., after a grand jury’s decision in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. A Justice Department investigation has found patterns of racial bias in the Ferguson police department and at the municipal jail and court. The full report, to be publicly released on March 4, says the investigation found Ferguson officers disproportionately used excessive force against blacks and too often charged them with petty offenses.
In this Nov. 25, 2014 file photo, police officers watch protesters as smoke fills the streets in Ferguson, Mo., after a grand jury’s decision in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. A Justice Department investigation has found patterns of racial bias in the Ferguson police department and at the municipal jail and court. The full report, to be publicly released on March 4, says the investigation found Ferguson officers disproportionately used excessive force against blacks and too often charged them with petty offenses. AP

A law enforcement official familiar with the wide-ranging Justice Department investigation prompted by the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown last August gave new details of the pattern of discriminatory and troubling behavior that he said the probe had found at the Ferguson Police Department in Missouri.

Citing hundreds of interviews and scrutiny of more than 35,000 documents, the official said investigators had found systemic racial bias in Ferguson’s court and law enforcement practices. The report may be issued as early as Wednesday.

The official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity Tuesday because the report wasn’t yet public, said investigators had found that:

▪  African-Americans in Ferguson are far more likely to be penalized than white residents. African-Americans, for instance, are 68 percent less likely to have their charges dismissed in municipal court and are significantly more likely to be charged with petty offenses such as walking in the roadway.

▪  The Ferguson Police Department has a pattern or practice of making automobile stops without reasonable suspicion and making arrests without probable cause, primarily targeting African-Americans. While African-Americans make up 67 percent of Ferguson’s population, they accounted for 85 percent of all those subjected to vehicle stops.

▪  Ferguson’s law enforcement practices seem to emphasize revenue collection over public safety, saddling residents with crippling debt. In fiscal year 2013, the municipal court issued over 9,000 arrest warrants, mostly for minor offenses.

The investigation uncovered, as well, that coarse and racially biased emails had been sent by Ferguson police and municipal court officials, as in one from May 2011.

“An African-American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination,” the unidentified email writer said. “Two weeks later she received a check for $5,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said, ‘Crime Stoppers.’ ”

The completion of the civil rights investigation into the police department, and a separate decision on whether to file federal charges against former Officer Darren Wilson, are among the last calls Attorney General Eric Holder will make in office. The nomination of his successor, Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and awaits a full Senate vote.

Federal prosecutors would face extremely high hurdles in trying to convict Wilson on civil rights charges, and most neutral legal experts don’t expect charges to be brought against him. Holder himself has set the stage for such an outcome, declaring in recent interviews that the bar is too high.

“I think some serious consideration needs to be given to the standard of proof that has to be met before federal involvement is appropriate,” Holder told the news outfit Politico in an interview last week.

Wilson, who is white, shot Brown, who’s African-American, on Aug. 9. The shooting prompted a series of demonstrations, both peaceful and violent, as well as an extended national conversation about police use of force.

Last November, a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict Wilson on state charges for the shooting.

The federal probe into Brown’s death proceeded on a parallel track, covering much of the same territory but with a different potential end point. Instead of the murder charges considered by the local grand jury, the Justice Department had a civil rights focus.

Federal law makes it a crime for anyone acting with governmental authority to “willfully deprive a person of a right or privilege protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”

To secure a conviction on civil rights charges, federal prosecutors would have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Wilson had acted willfully, with an ill-intentioned purpose of violating Brown’s constitutionally protected rights. Negligence would not be enough in federal court.

Undertaken by the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section, the “pattern or practice” investigation focused on the police department’s use of force; stops, searches and arrests; discriminatory policing; and treatment of detainees at the Ferguson jail.

“This confirms what we have previously stated, that the actions of the killer of Michael Brown had to do with a systemic problem within the Ferguson Police Department,” Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Brown’s family, said in a statement to USA Today.

The Justice Department has undertaken a record number of similar “pattern or practice” investigations during Holder’s tenure, targeting police departments in Cleveland, New Orleans, Seattle and other cities.

Some cities, including Cleveland, have reached consent decrees with the Justice Department to adopt changes. Other jurisdictions, such as the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona, have resisted and as a result have faced federal lawsuits.

Brown’s family could still file a federal wrongful-death civil suit against Wilson, the police department or both. The standard of proof to win such a suit is preponderance of the evidence, lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold for a criminal conviction.

One civil suit, seeking $40 million, already has been filed by other Missouri residents claiming that Ferguson police used excessive force in controlling demonstrators.

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