MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

DOJ Ferguson Report About Treating Residents as Revenue, Not Just Racial Bias

Daily SabahDaily SabahThe 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.

Photo Credit: Daily Sabah

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    The only reason the DOJ came down on the FPD (not that it's actually done anything, so far these are just words) is because it became a political football, unfortunately centered around race instead of all police abuses. I'd imagine that they'll let the report circulate, pretend that it means something for a while, and then go back to making milquetoast "deals" with the FPD to "improve" community relations, and then--like all the others from the Seattle PD to Albuquerque to wherever--things will pretty much return to the status quo.

    Yay.

  • ||

    Yep. I am surprised they even mentioned the revenueing. I figured that reference would be a dirty word for them.

  • Ted S.||

    Not like it's made it into many reports. (This is the first time I've heard that the DOJ report mentioned it.)

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    Ditto.

  • ||

    Well, it's true, and I would imagine that if they're going to bother coming out with a critical report, it's just easier to point out that they're busting people partly for revenue reasons. I mean, remember that everyone knows that cops are at least partially just tax collectors with guns. Almost everyone has gotten a speeding ticket or moving violation or something and seen how absurdly high the fines are. Just because the cop line is to always say they aren't revenue agents and have no quotas, doesn't mean most people believe them.

    I mean, do you think the lazy goldbricking jerkoffs at the DOJ would spend any time making up a plausible thing to criticize the FPD over when they have a real one staring them in the face?

  • Charles Easterly||

    Epi,
    I don't disagree with most of the points you've made this moring on this topic, but I am somewhat encouraged by the DOJ report.
    "The DOJ['s] ... 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."

    As you, myself, and others have pointed out, this is an important distinction and a step in the correct direction.

    And just to be redundant: "[The] ... report could start an important conversation on a root cause of police abuse, particularly among poor and minority communities—residents as revenue streams."

    It isn't critically scathing, yet nor is it white washing, so I'd say it's another good step.

  • ||

    It's not "revenue," it's "funds for investment in infrastructure, teachers, and nurses."

  • ||

    As Epi points out above just because they say that doesn't mean people believe them.

    Prohibition was for the children, but people called the enforcers 'revenuers' because everyone knew what it was really about.

    My extended family has a hundred 'revenuer' stories. Most of them involve someone taking pot-shots at the fuckers, which apparently was common, or putting them in a bayou somewhere. I hear French Fork has a couple permanent residents.

  • sarcasmic||

    They were called 'revenuers' long before Prohibition. Before the income tax, the federal government's main source of revenue was taxes on alcohol. So those who enforced alcohol taxes were called revenuers.

  • sarcasmic||

    *learned that from Henry Rollins on the History Channel*

  • RealCrankyYankee||

    I learned this from watching Boardwalk Empire

  • ||

    I did not know that.

    Thank you.

  • PapayaSF||

    See the Whiskey Rebellion.

  • John C. Randolph||

    No, before the imposition of the great looting spree of 1913, the bulk of federal revenues were from customs duties.

    -jcr

  • bassjoe||

    It's actually revenue to keep the local cartel of prosecutors/judges/defense attorneys employed.

    One attorney can be prosecutor in one of these St. Louis suburbs, a judge in another, and a court-appointed defense attorney in a third.

  • bassjoe||

    It's actually revenue to keep the local cartel of prosecutors/judges/defense attorneys employed.

    One attorney can be prosecutor in one of these St. Louis suburbs, a judge in another, and a court-appointed defense attorney in a third.

  • sarcasmic||

    This is why I would support an Amendment prohibiting lawyers from political office. Talk about conflict of interest.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I am deeply reluctant to give the would-be ruling class the idea that they can exclude anybody from holding office by reason of what they do for a living. Yes, even lawyers. It's like protecting the First Amendment rights of appalling racists; I don't want to find myself fighting a rearguard action to protect the freedom of speech of people I LIKE, because I gave the rapacious State an entering wedge by neglecting the freedom of people I loathe.

  • sarcasmic||

    Self interested lawyers will write legislation that requires translation by lawyers.

  • croaker||

    In the early days of North American colonization, lawyers themselves were forbidden. That didn't last long, and the nation is poorer as a result.

  • sarcasmic||

    "Failure to comply"

    aka OBEY

    This is just another example of how, without consequences for illegal actions, cops can do anything they want. By law, no one has to comply with an unlawful order. I don't know about Missouri, but here in Maine the cops need reasonable suspicion that you've committed a crime or have warrants for your arrest for a demand for identification to be a lawful order. Though that won't stop them from arresting you if you fail to comply when they make that demand in absence of reasonable suspicion. In a just world the cop would be charged with a crime or at least disciplined for arresting someone for failing to comply with an unlawful order. But we don't live in a just world.

  • Jerryskids||

    All you have to do is what you are told and everything will be fine. (Oh, and try not to be black - that's just stupidity on your part.)

  • buybuydandavis||

    "aka OBEY"

    Submit. Bend over.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    You notice there are no actual consequences for improperly arresting individuals on a whim, so I wouldn't look for FPD to make any changes there.

  • sarcasmic||

    Oh, they'll make changes alright. Changes in how they keep records of what they do.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    We really do need to establish in law that the moment a cop issues and order that he should, by the very nature of his job, know is unlawful he loses all legal protection whatsoever. I don't demand that they know all the esoteric corners of the law, but they should by this time be aware that they have no grounds to order anyone to stop making a video recording, ever.

    A cop that lays violent hands on a citizen because the citizen did not obey an illegal order should be facing charges for assault. Period. And if the police unions whines, tell them they have a choice; act like upholders of the law, or quit.

    Doubt there are enough politician with the guts to do that, though.

    One day soon, with the spread of open carry, the death rate of obnoxious cops is going to start to rise. It almost has to. Push around enough people and sooner or later somebody is going to push back.

    The cops really need to reform themselves before it comes to that. They won't like the alternative one bit.

  • Paul.||

    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 Reason's coverage of the recent CPS case of the mother who let her children walk to a park unattended, when the father balked at showing ID to an officer while inside his own home, was threatened with death. Shockingly, that wasn't even a major part of the story.

    I hardly think that Ferguson isn't really much of an outlier here, except for the fact that for whatever reason, the events which kicked off the riots had more traction in the media.

  • sarcasmic||

    In that case it may have been legal. When you're driving your car on a public road, you've got to provide proof that you're on that public road legally if a cops demands it. But if you're just walking on the sidewalk, depending on the state that demand may not be legal. But since the cops face no consequences for arresting someone on false pretenses, they will always abuse their power.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The riots and media coverage were engineered by the political forces in the country that find a large body of oppressed voters useful. The shooting could be safely made the subject of staged outrage because there was little chance the officer would actually be charged. The preponderance of available evidence was on his side.

    If the poverty pimps made a stink about actual oppression, something might actually get done about it. And non-oppressed people are likely to throw over the likes of Sharpton (and Obama) in favor of leaders with morals rather better than a South American Colonel For Life.

    That's what makes this report newsworthy. Somebody at DOJ is actually interested in identifying injustice. Somebody missed the briefing.

    They'll bury it, of course, but it's interesting that even their own flunkies aren't lining up all the way.

  • Warrren||

    At some point won't we hit hit a tipping point where people are just tired of having cops around?

  • bassjoe||

    I've surprised they've lasted this long considering the concept was thought up by the French.

  • bassjoe||

    Sorry for the double-posting; no idea why that's happening. I'm only hitting "Submit" once, honest!

  • ||

    I support an amendment to deport all squirrels. The cute little fuzzy bastards have eaten several of my best comments today.

    ex. from the earlier string of comments on Von Bargen's passing;

    "I had a buddy who went through that. He was down to one leg, three toes and three fingers on each hand. Diabetes was eating holes in the skin on his hands and arms and probably other places I could not see, plus he would fall several times a day by the time he died. He couldn't go to the bathroom by himself.

    He owned a gun store and went to work every day right up until the day before he died. He was always smiling and joking despite what he was going through. He sold tons of guns. He was retired before the store and told me that the only reason he opened the store was to have a place to drink coffee and talk with his friends. I have no idea how he did it.

    No one said, and I didn't ask, but I suspect he finally just couldn't take it anymore and I can't blame him.

    I miss that guy. I really do. His passing was a great loss to us all. Truly honorable men are the fewest among us and he was one of them."

    Fuckin' squirrels.

  • bassjoe||

    I've surprised they've lasted this long considering the concept was thought up by the French.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Everyone I know is more afraid of cops than criminals.

  • Paul.||

    Tipping points only occur with weather.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "residents as revenue streams"

    "the use of the charge of "failure to comply" to make arrests. "

    This sums it up.

    We are sheep to be fleeced, or we are to obediently "comply" and bend over on demand.

    The fleecing is just another tax. But robbing us just doesn't seem to be enough anymore. Now it's about obedience. Compliance. Submission. It's about cops getting their rocks off on the sweet taste of power.

  • croaker||

    This is why I advocate the return of the Middle Kingdom's rule. If you want to exercise the power of life and death over the populace, turn in your balls. Actually, you get to keep your pickled balls in a clay jar so they can be buried with you when you die, but if you want to be a cop, they will be severed from your body.

    Oh, and there will be random steroid testing for your entire career.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    I think they want some way for the main media headline *not* to be "Officer Wilson exonerated by feds," but rather "U.S. Justice Department denounces police abuses, racism in Ferguson."

    A quick Google News search shows that the latter headline is more common than the former, or at least they combine the two points in the same headline.

    Giving that the same no-charge decision by a local grand jury led to riots, maybe the DoJ was worried about provoking riots itself. Or maybe they want to soothe their base - the best way to do this would have been to charge Wilson, but apparently the case against Wilson has more holes than a Swiss cheese, so in lieu of that they had to content themselves with denouncing the Ferguson P.D.

    Now, I think there *are* problems with the Ferguson P.D., but that's because of the Reason coverage, not because of some document produced by the Obama administration for political purposes.

  • PapayaSF||

    Agreed. This is only an issue in Ferguson because of DoJ spite regarding Michael Brown.

    I realize I risk abuse for saying this, but the quoted examples are pretty weak tea. Someone gets out of the car when told not to, and so they got arrested. Someone doesn't produce ID when asked, and so they got arrested. This is hardly the jackboot of fascism.

    Maybe I'm just a boring suburbanite at heart, but I was taught to comply with police orders, to exercise discretion, and to pick my battles. I believe lots of the people who have poor interactions with police do none of those things, so the results are no surprise to me. Ticking off someone with a badge and a gun just seems stupid.

    Is there racial bias in Ferguson? Maybe. The noticeably higher percentage of unsuccessful searches of black suspects seems pretty damning. But as politically incorrect as it is to say, a lot of what gets labeled "bias" is actually "bitter experience." It's a stereotype, but it's not untrue that urban blacks are often prone to mouthing off, to other blacks and to other races and to the police. The term ABW (angry black woman) exists, and it's not just a racist fantasy. That sort of thing could well induce individual cops with no racial animus to arrest someone they might otherwise have let off with a warning. So I'd like to know the details of these "failure to comply" arrests. I suspect they were not preceded by excessive politeness on the part of the people arrested.

  • Calidissident||

    Interesting how the "Angry Black Person" stereotype is granted as true, and to be accounted for, but say, the stereotype of police being racist must not be assumed as true and we must conduct every bit of mental gymnastics necessary to avoid that conclusion. I've noticed that the "stereotypes exist for a reason" crowd on the right has a habit of selectively applying that rule.

  • PapayaSF||

    It's just anecdotal, but I've seen a number of angry black women in my life, known several people (all left-liberals) who have as well, plus there's all the evidence on World Star Hiphop videos. On the other hand, I've never seen a policeman do anything racist. I'm sure they exist, but I've never seen it.

    Another difference is that the charge that a policeman is acting out of racial animus is a very serious one. I'm reluctant to throw that charge around lightly. On the other hand, "being loud and obnoxious in public" is a far less serious charge.

    I think that if you totaled every verified incident of police acting racist in the last few decades, and compared it with the total number of incidents of black people acting badly in public, it would not be much of a contest. Stereotypes don't mean (or shouldn't) that every member of group X always does Y, but humans tend to notice patterns, unless their ideology tells them not to. Let's face it: whenever you hear about a flash mob robbing a store, a gang assaulting people at a fair, or a brawl at a mall or a restaurant, how often is it done by whites or Asians or Hispanics? Police know this, and it influences their thoughts and actions.

  • Charles Easterly||

    "On the other hand, I've never seen a policeman do anything racist. I'm sure they exist, but I've never seen it."

    A buddy of mine told me that when he was training a new police officer he had to emphasize "Walking while black" is not suspicious activity. Evidently this was an undercurrent that he contended with at work.

    With regard to something else you wrote, PapayaSF, I'd say that dealing with the general public requires many skills and a certain temperament. Arresting citizens simply for not obeying your commands or unjustifiably being mouthy to you would, I suggest, reflect poorly on you, not on the defiant citizen.

    My own interactions with police have been varied. I was the same person each time (respectful, helpful, et cetera), the level of professionalism - or hostility - of the encounters were dependent solely on the other individual.

  • PapayaSF||

    Part of it is that I think of police as having relatively high-stress jobs with lots of interaction with the public, and not necessarily the finest examples of the public, either. Have you ever read a list of terms that paramedics and emergency room personnel use among themselves? It's hilarious and dark and totally un-PC. They notice patterns and make light of it all, in part to relieve stress. I suspect police do something similar. Not that there aren't bad eggs and dimwits and abuses, but I try to cut people some slack due to what they have to deal with.

  • Calidissident||

    "On the other hand, I've never seen a policeman do anything racist. I'm sure they exist, but I've never seen it."

    Well then it must not happen much if a middle-aged white guy in the Bay Area hasn't observed it. I also didn't see police act racist when I grew up in a small town that was about 75% white and like 2% black. It's a bit more obvious living in South Central LA. A solid majority of black guys I know (mostly college students, not exactly gangbangers) have, at some point or another, been detained, stopped, or questioned at one point or another by LAPD for little to no apparent reason. It's likely that not every one of those instances was racist. But when I could probably count on one hand the number of instances where a white guy I know has encountered a similar situation (and I know significantly more white guys than black guys), it's pretty naive to think that race is just a coincidence overall.

    "I think that if you totaled every verified incident of police acting racist in the last few decades, and compared it with the total number of incidents of black people acting badly in public, it would not be much of a contest."

    There are also way way more black people in this country than cops.

  • Calidissident||

    "Stereotypes don't mean (or shouldn't) that every member of group X always does Y, but humans tend to notice patterns, unless their ideology tells them not to."

    And my point is that you (and many on the right, although the left has their own brands of hypocrisy) apply this reasoning very selectively. For example, negative stereotypes about black people, Muslims, Hispanics, or illegal immigrants are totally rational and reasonable, but thinking that Republicans, or cops, or conservatives are racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, etc. is totally unfair and not true. Up thread, you said "But as politically incorrect as it is to say, a lot of what gets labeled "bias" is actually 'bitter experience.'" Did you ever stop to think maybe that's why common stereotypes about cops (or Repubs/conservatives, or even white people in general) exist (particularly in the mind of black and minority Americans)?

  • PapayaSF||

    Yes, I know prejudice and stereotypes work in all directions. Duh. I'm not saying any stereotype is "rational and reasonable," just that stereotypes often contain some truth, and that noticing patterns and statistics is not the same thing as stereotyping. As is often the case around here, I am trying to make a subtle distinction and you are reading my words in the most simplistic way possible, and then attacking me for something I'm not saying.

    It's clear the culture weight has shifted. Generations ago, people tended to give much more weight to old-fashioned stereotypes like "blacks are more likely to be criminals." Now in our more enlightened age, we are told "blacks aren't more likely to be criminals, but if they are, it's because of racism and poverty." Which, of course, totally ignores the fact that there is less racism and poverty than there were generations ago. So today we have modern, up-to-date stereotypes, like "police are racists unfairly targeting blacks."

  • straffinrun||

    The DOJ identified one particularly troubling and widespread practice, the use of the charge of "failure to comply" to make arrests.

    I worship irony and this will be etched on my temple walls.

  • griffinjess||

    my co-worker's mom makes $66 hourly on the computer . She has been without a job for nine months but last month her income was $15318 just working on the computer for a few hours. this page.for work detail go tech tab.... http://www.Job-bandana.com

  • userve32||

    The DOJ is full of idiots and morons.

    www.AnonStuff.tk

  • Boomer||

    As much as Reason has harped on his age, I'm surprised to see you refer to Michael Brown as a "19-year-old."

  • Nosea||

    "...perverse incentives created in policing when local governments rely on fines levied against residents as a major source of revenue."

    Even more perverse, is the fact that they targeted the poor. Whatever incentive quotas they were aiming for didn't mitigate the cost of incarceration, court costs, and police time. So, we are left with racial profiling and as most often is the case, it starts from the very top ( the proof is in the emails). Good, decent cops do not have a chance in that environment. Eventually, they will follow the herd and be happy they have a paycheck.

  • RealCrankyYankee||

    I'm too lazy to read the whole report so I've only heard the cherry-picked portions. On NPR they focused only on the racial bias portion (big surprise) and the Weekly Standard article I read online focused only on the fact that the physical evidence supported the Ferguson officer's version of the Michael Brown shooting. Sounds like Reason has it right again by focusing on the police abuse.

  • Spartacus||

    Just words. Wake me up when someone actually takes away their asset forteiture proceeds, or says they can't buy any new surplus military toys. Until there are some actual consequences, this report is just another source of toilet paper.

  • maryjaneromeo||

    Just as Joseph said I'm alarmed that a stay at home mom can earn $5046 in 4 weeks on the computer .
    check out the post right here ...... ✹✹✹✹✹✹ www.jobsfish.com

  • Flemur||

    and not just its racially-disparate application.

    The people are racially disparate, not the application.

    Can you find any similar town, anywhere in the US, perhaps anywhere in the world, where blacks aren't arrested more often than people of other races? (I doubt it). Or where E. Asians are arrested less often than people of other races? (I doubt that, too)

    Race and Crime in America
    "The unspoken statistical reality of urban crime over the last quarter century."

  • Win Bear||

    The "local residents" of Ferguson overwhelmingly didn't bother to vote in local elections, that is, the elections that determine how police are funded and what policies they implement. So I'm not sure who is complaining about what here. If you don't bother to vote in local elections, why would you expect people to get into power that have your interests at heart?

  • ||

    It is a very sad treand

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online