At every point in the drama of Ferguson, Missouri, from the first protests to the final fires, Americans have argued about the character of the personalities involved. Was Michael Brown a thug or an ordinary kid? Was Darren Wilson a racist, or was he just trying to do his job? In each case, the hope was that you could justify your “side” with the right answer. If Brown was just a criminal, then his death wasn’t a tragedy, and the protests don’t mean anything. If Wilson is a racist, then the community is righteous, and their anger is just.
As it stands, we have good evidence that Brown committed criminal acts, as well as a firm conclusion from the Justice Department that there aren’t sufficient facts to support a criminal indictment against Wilson and that the officer is neither guilty of a civil rights violation nor culpable under federal law. As far as the state goes, the evidence shows that he did what he had to do.
But this conclusion shouldn’t lead anyone to dismiss the discord in Ferguson, which was fueled by stronger forces than Brown’s death. The reason it happened as it did—the reason the anger spilled into protests and rioting—is because of a long history of police mistreatment and unfairness. Journalists covered much of this in the weeks and months after the August protests. But a new review from the Justice Department goes beyond what we know to expand on the Ferguson police practices. The department didn’t just discriminate against black Americans; it targeted them for fines and fees and knowingly violated their constitutional rights.
Take traffic stops. Not only did police stop blacks at a rate greater than their share of the population—from 2012 to 2014, blacks were 67 percent of Ferguson residents but 85 percent of traffic stops—but they were twice as likely to search blacks than they were whites, who were 26 percent more likely to have actual contraband.
You see the same dynamic with small, discretionary infractions. Ninety-five percent of tickets for jaywalking were against black residents, as were 94 percent of all “failure to comply” charges. Either black people were the only Ferguson citizens to jaywalk, or the department was targeting blacks for enforcement. On the rare occasion when police charged whites with these minor offenses, they were 68 percent more likely to have their cases dismissed. And because supervisors awarded promotions on the basis of officer “productivity,” there was little incentive to stop any of this behavior.
The most disturbing statistics are with regard to arrest, incarceration, and police force. Ninety-three percent of all arrests in Ferguson were of black Americans, and 88 percent of use-of-force incidents were against them. In cases where police had warrants, 92 percent were for blacks. Of those arrested for outstanding warrants, 96 percent were black, and among people jailed for more than two days, 95 percent were black. And in a terrible callback to Jim Crow, police used canines exclusively against black residents, including a 14-year-old boy who suffered puncture wounds in his arms, hands, and legs.
It’s possible that these are legitimate stops, tickets, and arrests and that the black people of Ferguson are unusually criminal and hostile to the law. But the full scope of the Justice Department’s investigation belies this reading of the data. From beginning to end, the report—a six-month project of interviews, analysis, and research—details a steady stream of outrageous police conduct. “Our investigation has revealed that these disparities occur, at least in part, because of unlawful bias against and stereotypes about African Americans,” concludes the report. Indeed, there were times when it reads like a dispatch from another, more authoritarian era of American history, where police detained and punished black citizens for the slightest “offenses,” from challenging a police stop to simply asking a question.
In one incident, during the summer of 2012, a police officer detained a 32-year-old black man who was cooling off in his car after playing basketball. While the officer “arguably had grounds to stop and question the man”—his windows appeared more deeply tinted than allowed under Ferguson municipal codes—his actions were far more aggressive than necessary:
Without cause, the officer went on to accuse the man of being a pedophile, prohibit the man from using his cell phone, order the man out of his car for a pat-down despite having no reason to believe he was armed, and ask to search his car. When the man refused, citing his constitutional rights, the officer reportedly pointed a gun at his head, and arrested him. The officer charged the man with eight different counts, including making a false declaration for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of “Michael”) and an address that, although legitimate, differed from the one on his license. The officer also charged the man both with having an expired operator’s license, and with having no operator’s license in possession. The man told us he lost his job as a contractor with the federal government as a result of the charges.
In another case, in June, an officer stopped a family for letting their two young children urinate in the bushes near their car, threatened to cite them for allowing their children to “expose” themselves, and then arrested the father as punishment for his wife posing a question to the officer:
When the mother asked if the officer had to detain the father in front of the children, the officer turned to the father and said, “You’re going to jail because your wife keeps running her mouth.” The mother then began recording the officer on her cell phone. The officer became irate, declaring, “You don’t videotape me!” As the officer drove away with the father in custody for “parental neglect,” the mother drove after them, continuing to record. The officer then pulled over and arrested her for traffic violations. When the father asked the officer to show mercy, he responded, “No more mercy, since she wanted to videotape,” and declared “Nobody videotapes me.” The officer then took the phone, which the couple’s daughter was holding. After posting bond, the couple found that the video had been deleted.
Ferguson police are quick to use force—in one case, an officer detained a black resident, refused to articulate any criminal suspicion, and used a stun gun on him for 20 continuous seconds when he wouldn’t submit to a frisk—employing it against students and the mentally ill. The Justice Department also cites multiple cases where police arrested residents for everything from disrespectful language to trying to attend to injured friends and family. Here’s an example:
In one instance from May 2014, for example, a man rushed to the scene of a car accident involving his girlfriend, who was badly injured and bleeding profusely when he arrived. He approached and tried to calm her. When officers arrived they treated him rudely, according to the man, telling him to move away from his girlfriend, which he did not want to do. They then immediately proceeded to handcuff and arrest him, which, officers assert, he resisted. EMS and other officers were not on the scene during this arrest, so the accident victim remained unattended, bleeding from her injuries, while officers were arresting the boyfriend. Officers charged the man with five municipal code violations … and had his vehicle towed and impounded.
Per the Justice Department, the sheer disparate impact of Ferguson police actions is enough to prove racial bias. But actual prejudice also influenced police practices and behavior. The Justice Department records multiple instances in which officers used racial slurs—including “nigger”—against black residents, and it finds evidence of racial bias among city officials, including a series of emails sent by Ferguson officials using city accounts.
But while racial bias informed the actions of the Ferguson Police Department, the chief driver was city coffers. In 2013, for example, fines and forfeitures accounted for 20 percent of Ferguson’s $12.7 million operating budget. Or as the Justice Department writes, “City officials have consistently set maximizing revenue as the priority for Ferguson’s law enforcement activity.”
Officers weren’t protecting citizens as much as they were corralling potential offenders and sources of revenue, with a huge assist from the city municipal court. “City and police leadership pressure officers to write citations, independent of any public safety need, and rely on citation productivity to fund the City budget. … Court staff are keenly aware that the City considers revenue generation to be the municipal court’s primary purpose,” the Justice Department writes. Officials imposed huge fines for minor violations, including a total of $1,000 for one 67-year-old woman who failed to pay a trash-removal citation, leading to a warrant and a cascade of new fees.
Once fined, residents have to pay in full—court clerks refuse to take partial payments. At the same time, failure to pay in time brings warrants and additional fines, creating a cycle of escalating tickets and fees. One woman, after failing to pay parking tickets following financial difficulties, including homelessness, was issued seven “failure to appear” offenses after missing court dates between 2007 and 2010. After each offense, she was loaded with more fees and additional arrest warrants: “As of December 2014, over seven years later, despite initially owing a $151 fine and having already paid $550, she still owed $541.”
With that said, even if you pay your fines on time, it is difficult to resolve your case. “The rules and procedures of the court are difficult for the public to discern,” writes the Justice Department. “It is often difficult for an individual who receives a municipal citation or summons in Ferguson to know how much is owed, where and how to pay the ticket, what the options for payment are, what rights the individual has, and what the consequences are for various actions or oversights.”
When I was in Ferguson, I talked to white residents who were baffled by the anger of their black neighbors. What was so bad about the city? they asked. Why are you so upset?
It’s not hard to grok. In Ferguson, if you are black, you live in the shadow of lawlessness and plunder, directed by city officials and enforced by the police. You work, and you pay taxes, and those taxes go to fund a system that stops you, arrests you, and steals from you.
Which is all to say that we shouldn’t ask why Ferguson rioted. We should ask why it didn’t happen sooner.