Just days after a scathing report accused police in Ferguson, Mo., of over-enforcement that is racially discriminatory and aimed at raising revenue for the city, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) will introduce a bill that would make such policing practices a federal civil rights violation.
The Fair Justice Act would make it a civil rights violation punishable by up to five years in prison for a police officer, chief or department to enforce criminal or traffic laws for the purpose of raising revenue.
"The time has come to end the practice of using law enforcement as a cash register, a practice that has impacted too many Americans and has disproportionately affected minority and low-income communities,” Cleaver said in a statement provided to The Washington Post. “No American should have to face arbitrary police enforcement whose sole purpose is to raise revenue for a town, city, or state.”
Much like any other legislation pitched by a Democratic lawmaker, the bill could face a perilous pathway to passage with Republicans now in control of both chambers of Congress. However, some congressional aides think there is bipartisan consensus that some action is needed in light of the national conversation around policing that was sparked by the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
Thousands in Ferguson protested the shooting, clinging to the story of several witnesses that Brown had his hands up in surrender at the time. Residents took to the streets, in large part, they said, because of their own experiences with the Ferguson Police Department exhibiting racial prejudice.
The Justice Department soon began two investigations, one of the shooting and another of the police department's patterns and practices.
The first inquiry validated the decision of a local grand jury not to indict officer Darren Wilson and concluded that there was no evidence to back up the claim that Brown’s hands were up at the time of the shooting.
But the second report painted a damning picture of the Ferguson Police Department, chronicling dozens of anecdotes of black residents being treated unconstitutionally. Black men, women and children in Ferguson are stopped, ticketed, arrested and bitten by police dogs disproportionately not only to their percentage of the population but also disproportionately to their rate of crime, the DOJ concluded.
"What we saw was that the Ferguson Police Department, in conjunction with the municipality, saw traffic stops, arrests, tickets as a revenue generator, as opposed to serving the community,” President Obama said in response to the report’s release. “And that it systematically was biased against African Americans.”
A sea of legislative proposals has flooded statehouses nationwide, and late last year Congress passed the Death in Custody Act, which requires police departments to report anytime someone is killed during an arrest or detention.
Civil rights groups say their top priority is to pass a bill to ban racial profiling by police departments -- which was one recommendation to Obama by the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing. But such a bill has been a nonstarter with many conservative lawmakers since the early 2000s.