The Department of Justice's (DOJ) highly anticipated report on police practices in Ferguson, Missouri, was leaked yesterday and released today. At the same time, the DOJ said it did not find enough evidence to charge Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed 19-year-old Michael Brown last summer, leading to weeks of local and national media attention and protests, with any civil rights violations. As the DOJ explained in its press release, "the combination of Ferguson's focus on generating revenue over public safety, along with racial bias, has a profound effect on the FPD's police and court practices, resulting in conduct that routinely violates the Constitution and federal law."
The DOJ found significant racial disparities in arrests, citations, and other police action, but its findings about the pattern and practice of Constitutional violations by the FPD pointed to fundamental problems with the policing, and not just its racially-disparate application. Namely, the DOJ found systemic abuses of the First and Fourth Amendment rights of Ferguson residents by the police department, through unconstitutional stops, the use of excessive force, and treating protected conduct, like recording police or complaining about police conduct.
The DOJ identified one particularly troubling and widespread practice, the use of the charge of "failure to comply" to make arrests. The DOJ provides examples of how police produce interactions that can lead to arrest:
In an October 2011 incident, an officer arrested two sisters who were backing their car into their driveway. The officer claimed that the car had been idling in the middle of the street, warranting investigation, while the women claim they had pulled up outside their home to drop someone off when the officer arrived. In any case, the officer arrested one sister for failing to provide her identification when requested. He arrested the other sister forgetting out of the car after being ordered to stay inside. The two sisters spent the next three hours in jail. In a similar incident from December 2011, police officers approached two people sitting in a car on a public street and asked the driver for identification. When the driver balked, insisting that he was on a public street and should not have to answer questions, the officers ordered him out of the car and ultimately charged him with Failure to Comply.
In the last ten years, the Department of Justice has conducted similar investigations on police departments from Albuquerque to Newark, N.J. This one provides more focus on the racial bias than some of these investigations do—Attorney General Eric Holder accused the department of creating a "toxic environment"—predictable given the role of racial division in Ferguson's policing problems. More importantly, however, this report also focused much more on the perverse incentives created in policing when local governments rely on fines levied against residents as a major source of revenue. The problem is certainly not unique to Ferguson, nor to Missouri, but is rarely addressed this directly even when patterns and practices of police abuse are found. These DOJ investigations usually end with an agreement between the department and the local government on reforms. Coupled with a climate in Missouri, and around the country, more amenable to police reform than ever before, the report could start an important conversation on a root cause of police abuse, particularly among poor and minority communities—residents as revenue streams.