When the report came out, much of the attention was focused on the litany of misconduct investigators had found. This made sense, given that the report was an official reckoning with what became, as Holder put it on Wednesday, “a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices.” The report attempted to put into context the local reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, even as the national response itself was fueled by and informed a larger debate about police force and race in the country.
Yet amid the methodical look at the practices of Ferguson’s police officers and court officials, there also comes a logical question: What comes next? The report offered a sweeping view of Ferguson as it was and as it is, but the Justice Department’s investigators also used a portion of the 102-page document to look ahead, outlining what they viewed as a path forward for a city with “deeply entrenched practices and priorities” that it deemed to be intentionally discriminatory.
The changes the Justice Department says must come to Ferguson are not cosmetic in nature, nor are they merely making recommendations that the city can consider at its own leisure. Federal authorities believe that only a fundamental reshaping of the way the city’s police force and courts operate can fix the situation. Some of the government’s recommendations would alter the nature of how police officers in the city spend their shifts, moving from a 12-hour period of work to a patrol more focused on a specific area or neighborhood.
Other recommendations would revamp much of how the report shows officers were encouraged to operate until this point. A considerable portion of the report is spent on the issues with how officers make arrests and carry out stops, conduct that investigators directly linked to the charged atmosphere in Ferguson (as did protesters last August, when demonstrations first began). It is on this topic that the Justice Department issues some of its most expansive and precise orders, ones that are aimed at wholly changing the way police and residents often wind up interacting.
The Ferguson police force is told to completely revamp how it handles things like stops, searches and arrests, pivoting away from efforts that investigators said have until now been oriented toward finding ways into residents’ wallets as often as possible. Ticketing and arrests quotas should be dropped, the report states.
The federal government also recommends a change that would impact some of the crimes for which black residents are disproportionately arrested in Ferguson. African Americans account for 94 percent of all failure to comply charges in the city, 92 percent of resisting arrest charges, 92 percent of disturbing the peace charges and 89 percent of failure to obey charges. In an effort to change these dramatic percentages, the Justice Department says supervisors should have to sign off before police can arrest people for any of these offenses.
These recommendations include multiple suggestions that police should have to work more with supervisors, bringing a second set of eyes onto their work. Traffic stops were cited by the Justice Department this week and residents last August as an example of the city’s racial disparity, and the report calls for analyzing these stops for racial disparities and figuring out ways to try and reduce this gap.
One of many dramatic stories in the report was of a woman who called the police to report domestic violence. When officers arrived, the boyfriend had left, but police realized he lived there and arrested the woman for violating a housing permit:
The Justice Department also suggests another check on officers here, saying that supervisors should have to sign off on arrests of people who sought the help of police in the first place. In addition, police officers are told they should be better trained to respond to people with mental illnesses, while the department as a whole needs much better training, the report states.
To resolve the police force’s well-publicized lack of any racial or gender diversity — out of 54 officers at the time of the report, just four were black and four were women — the department is urged to revamp its hiring process. To better handle complaints of police misconduct, Ferguson is instructed to make it easier for residents to file these reports and create a fair system to process them. And to make for a more open process, the department is told that it should make public information regarding its traffic stops and arrests as well as complaints against officers.
The city’s court system, which is often where initial infractions became magnified ordeals, is also given a list of reforms, including making it easier for people to submit payments and harder to jail people for violating the city code. Some changes have already been made in the court system, lowering the jail time for someone who cannot post bond to 12 hours from 72 hours, but additional improvements are urged.
Justice Department officials recently met with representatives from Ferguson to make recommendations for reform. One Justice Department official said it was a difficult meeting, but said the city was cooperating. The next step lies in whether the city and the federal government are able to reach an agreement. If they do, a settlement will be announced, something that occurred recently with police force in Albuquerque and other departments. But if no agreement is reached, the alternative is that the Justice Department could sue Ferguson. The attorney general pointedly hinted at this possibility during his remarks the day the report was released.
“It is time for Ferguson’s leaders to take immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action,” Holder said at a news conference Wednesday. “Let me be clear: the United States Department of Justice reserves all its rights and abilities to force compliance and implement basic change.”
On Friday, Holder said that the Justice Department would do whatever is necessary to reform the Ferguson police force, even if that meant dismantling it. (This would not be an unprecedented outcome in the region; the Jennings, Mo., police force was disbanded, which is how Darren Wilson came to work in Ferguson.) Most of the people who were involved in Ferguson’s police force and government before the federal government began its investigation are still there. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III told the Associated Press that Tom Jackson, the police chief, was still on the job as of Friday, while three people involved in sending racist e-mails were no longer employed by the city. (The city attorney, in a statement issued to The Post through a spokesman, said that Mary Ann Twitty, the court clerk, was fired on Wednesday; the other two, both police officers, resigned on Thursday.)
Knowles had also some critical words for the Justice Department, suggesting it should have let the city know about problems investigators were finding before the report was released. However, the report repeatedly notes that it is citing Ferguson’s own data, and adds this note about the response from people working for the city:
City officials have frequently asserted that the harsh and disparate results of Ferguson’s law enforcement system do not indicate problems with police or court practices, but instead reflect a pervasive lack of “personal responsibility” among “certain segments” of the community. Our investigation has found that the practices about which area residents have complained are in fact unconstitutional and unduly harsh.
Holder said on Friday that the Justice Department was prepared to completely dismantle the department if that is necessary. It is interesting, given the stories and data uncovered by its investigators, that the Justice Department report ultimately calls for a reoriented police department, rather than a wholly rebuilt one. After spending months interviewing hundreds of people, reading 35,000 pages of police records and sifting through the city’s data, and carefully outlining all of the things it found wrong in Ferguson, the Justice Department made a determination that Ferguson’s police force can be saved. In this regard, the report ends on a note of cautious optimism.
“Our investigation indicates that Ferguson as a City has the capacity to reform its approach to law enforcement,” the report states, adding: “These reform efforts will be well worth the considerable time and dedication they will require, as they have the potential to make Ferguson safer and more united.”
Similarly, Ferguson’s mayor told the Associated Press that the city would be reformed, saying that the end result of the entire process would be a positive one. “You can’t draw any conclusion other than Ferguson will be better after this,” Knowles said. It remains to be seen how long it will take to get from the Ferguson described by the federal government to the improved one Knowles believes lies ahead.
Sarah Larimer and Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.