Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday that the Justice Department had “opened a civil pattern or practice investigation into allegations of unlawful policing by the City of Ferguson (Missouri) Police Department (FPD).” This is welcome news given all the troubling things we have seen and learned since FPD Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American, on Aug. 9.
We learned that the population of Ferguson is 67 percent black, but the police force is 83 percent white. We learned that while blacks are a majority of the population, “five of the six council members and the mayor are all white.” And we learned this was the case because even though blacks and whites voted at comparable rates during presidential elections — 54 percent and 55 percent, respectively, in 2012 — only six percent of African Americans (and 17 percent of whites) showed up at the polls for municipal elections the following year.
But the Wilson shooting of Brown exposed three troubling things that can no longer be ignored.
1.) Criminalizing and profiting from the poor through fees and fines
In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson — a city of 21,135 people — issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations.
“Folks have the impression that this is a form of low-level harassment that isn’t about public safety,” Thomas Harvey, the founder of the group, told NPR. “It’s about money.” Big money. The report notes that of Ferguson’s $20 million in revenue, the $2.6 million in court fines and fees was the second-largest source of income. It also pointed out that the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of “about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household” last year.
According to ArchCity Defenders, in the nearby St. Louis County town of Florissant, one warrant was issued for every six residents “in the past year” by the municipal court. The court collected “about a quarter of [its] total revenue of $3,000,000” from warrants. If the number leaves you cold, read my colleague Radley Balko’s account of what happened in Florissant on March 20 to Nicole Bolden after she got into a car accident.
The officer found that Bolden had four arrest warrants in three separate jurisdictions: the towns of Florissant and Hazelwood in St. Louis County and the town of Foristell in St. Charles County. All of the warrants were for failure to appear in court for traffic violations. Bolden hadn’t appeared in court because she didn’t have the money. A couple of those fines were for speeding, one was for failure to wear her seatbelt and most of the rest were for what defense attorneys in the St. Louis area have come to call “poverty violations” — driving with a suspended license, expired plates, expired registration and a failure to provide proof of insurance.
This is part of the harrowing opening vignette in Balko’s extensive and excellent look at how municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty. “If you were tasked with designing a regional system of government guaranteed to produce racial conflict, anger, and resentment,” he writes, “you’d be hard pressed to do better than St. Louis County.”
A sure-fire way to change this is for the majority-black population to vote out its current municipal leadership in favor of officials committed to reforming the grossly unfair status quo.
2.) Alleged bad apples in the FPD
One of the reasons Holder is taking a look at the FPD was spelled out by The Post last weekend. At least five Ferguson police officers have been named in civil rights lawsuits.
In four federal lawsuits, including one that is on appeal, and more than a half-dozen investigations over the past decade, colleagues of Darren Wilson’s have separately contested a variety of allegations, including killing a mentally ill man with a Taser, pistol-whipping a child, choking and hog-tying a child and beating a man who was later charged with destroying city property because his blood spilled on officers’ clothes.
One officer has faced three internal affairs probes and two lawsuits over claims he violated civil rights and used excessive force while working at a previous police department in the mid-2000s. That department demoted him after finding credible evidence to support one of the complaints, and he subsequently was hired by the Ferguson force.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that a former officer involved in one of those cases is now a member of the Ferguson city council.
3.) The militarization of the police
The nation was aghast and angered by the appearance of local police tricked out in militarized riot gear going after mostly peaceful protesters with tear gas and assault weapons more accustomed to the theaters of war. One person who wasn’t aghast had to have been Balko, whose book, “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” published last year, decries “the militarization of America’s police forces.” In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Balko summed up his argument in one neat paragraph.
Since the 1960s, in response to a range of perceived threats, law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier. Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.
The Pentagon’s 1033 program and others at the Justice and Homeland Security departments that played a role in making the streets of Ferguson resemble Fallujah are now under intense scrutiny. Last week, President Obama ordered a review of these programs and next week, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who showed true leadership at the height of the madness, will chair a hearing on them.
Racial tension and resentment long simmered below the surface in Ferguson. And they boiled over after the shooting of Michael Brown and the callous treatment of his body and the protesting people of Ferguson. Their shock and anger grabbed the nation’s attention. Now, we must do everything possible to ensure that we never witness another Ferguson again, not in Missouri and not anywhere else in the United States.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj