When the Department of Justice investigated the Ferguson, Mo., police department in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by an officer, it uncovered widespread racial bias and constitutional violations in the years leading up to his death. Officers had systematically targeted African Americans in stops and arrests, the department’s 2015 report found, and generated revenue from them by aggressively enforcing small violations of the city’s code.
In one particularly alarming example, investigators described a 32-year-old black man who was sitting in his parked car after a game of pickup basketball in the summer of 2012 when an officer approached and demanded his identification. When the man asked why, the officer ordered him out of the car at gunpoint, then arrested him and charged him with a range of minor municipal violations. The charges included failure to wear a seat belt, even though his car was parked.
The man in question was Fred Watson, a Navy veteran and father who was working as a cybersecurity contractor with National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. His encounter with the officer stirred public outrage, and his case came to epitomize, along with Brown’s death, the police department’s well-documented hostility to African Americans.
Now, almost five years after Watson’s arrest, Ferguson prosecutors have abruptly dropped all the charges against him.
The decision came in a one-page filing Monday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Prosecutors didn’t offer an explanation, and Watson’s lawyers said they weren’t even notified of the move.
It represents a small but hard-fought victory for Watson, now 37. After his arrest, he lost his house, security clearance and six-figure job, and burned through his savings, as he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He also battled anxiety and depression, he said.
“I can’t get the five years back,” Watson told the newspaper Tuesday, but added that he was pleased that he could move on from the case.
Representatives for the city of Ferguson didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment Wednesday morning.
While Watson’s criminal case has ended, civil litigation over his arrest has only just begun. In July, Watson filed suit against Ferguson and the arresting officer, identified in court documents as Eddie Boyd III.
The complaint in U.S. District Court in St. Louis alleges a range of civil rights violations, including malicious prosecution by the city. The description of the encounter is similar to what appeared in the Department of Justice report but goes deeper into detail.
Watson said it unfolded on Aug. 1, 2012. He said he was cooling down in his parked car after playing basketball in Ferguson’s Forestwood Park when Boyd drove up in his squad car, blocking him in. The officer approached and unsnapped his gun holster, the lawsuit says.
“Put your hand on the steering wheel,” Boyd commanded, according to the complaint. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
The officer then demanded Watson’s license, insurance information and Social Security number. When Watson asked why, Boyd suggested, without any evidence, that he was a pedophile watching children in the park, the lawsuit says.
Watson continued to question why he was being stopped. He offered to give his driver’s license, which was in the back of the car, but not his Social Security card.
Boyd grew visibly angry when Watson asked him for his name and badge number, according to the complaint. At that point, Watson picked up his phone and told the officer he was calling 911.
Boyd then drew his gun and yelled to put the phone down and toss his keys out the window, according to the complaint. Watson ignored the commands and instead gripped the steering wheel, afraid that any movement might cause the officer to pull the trigger.
Eventually, other officers arrived. Watson obeyed when they ordered him out of the car. He sat handcuffed as Boyd rummaged through his car, the lawsuit says.
Watson was booked at the Ferguson police station and charged with seven violations, including driving without a license, driving with a revoked license, driving with illegally tinted windows, driving without a seat belt and other minor charges. His car was towed and officers confiscated $2,000 in cash that he said he intended to use for his children’s private school tuition payments.
When he later complained to the department about the officer’s conduct, police added two more charges: failure to comply with an officer and filing a false report.
Instead of pleading guilty, Watson fought the case. He and his lawyers have long maintained that he had a valid driver’s license and other documentation during his arrest and say none of his windows were illegally tinted. Other charges were meritless, they said.
In turn, the lawsuit says, the city dragged the case out.
As the case bounced around in the court system, Watson’s employers at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency suspended his security clearance. In August 2014, the company fired him, according to the complaint.
“Without his clearance, Mr. Watson is unable to find employment in the highly specialized field of government cybersecurity,” the lawsuit says. “As a result, he has remained jobless for most of the past five years and is now undertaking efforts to begin a new career.”
Watson is being represented in the case by ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm. There are no attorneys listed yet for Boyd or the city of Ferguson.
The account of Watson’s arrest was featured prominently in the Department of Justice’s 2015 report on the Ferguson Police Department. Investigators said it was a prime example of the way Ferguson police targeted black communities to generate funds for the city. Ferguson has since entered a consent decree with the federal government agreeing to broad reforms and has dropped tens of thousands of municipal cases like Watson’s.
“Many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue,” the report read.
“Even relatively routine misconduct by Ferguson police officers,” investigators wrote of Watson’s arrest, “can have significant consequences for the people whose rights are violated.”
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