On March 4, the Justice Department released its long-awaited report on the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department (FPD). It goes on for 102 single-spaced pages, and has been routinely described as a “scathing” and “devastating” exposé of police malpractice.
I trudged through the whole report, and these are the department’s main charges: The city tries to boost revenue by strictly enforcing city codes and fining people who violate them; FPD stops, questions, and arrests people without probable cause, it uses excessive force, and it discriminates against blacks.
Needless to say, this report is the equivalent of an opening statement by the prosecution, and until we hear from the FPD, we will have heard only one side of the story. If half of what the report says is true, the Ferguson Police Department has certainly made mistakes, but only a veteran police expert would know whether it is much different from any other small police department.
It’s worth recalling that the only reason the Justice Department paid any attention to Ferguson was because of a single famous incident, not because the PD had a consistent record of mistakes. That incident, the shooting of Michael Brown, turned out to be a piece of routine police work that lying “witnesses” and a partisan press blew up into a completely false charge of “racism.” DOJ launched its investigation at the height of Ferguson hysteria. It couldn’t afford to come home empty-handed.
Moreover, everything about Ferguson has to be understood in terms what has happened to the city in the past 25 years. In 1990, Ferguson was 74 percent white and 25 percent black. By 2010, the black population was 67 percent, and whites were only 29 percent. Probably, even more whites have left in the last five years. A quarter of the city is poor–60 percent higher than the national rate.
White flight doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it doesn’t happen without consequences. Lower-class blacks move in, and middle-class whites move out. Crime and poverty increase, the housing stock deteriorates, businesses move out, and the tax base collapses. This may explain DOJ’s first charge against the city.
Policing as a Revenue Source
There appears to be no doubt that collecting municipal fines is an important revenue source for Ferguson. In fiscal year 2011, fines accounted for $1.41 million of the City’s total revenue of $11.44 million, or 12.3 percent. The DOJ report cites e-mail between city officials on the importance of keeping the money coming in, and issuing fines and citations is part of a police officer’s “productivity.”
Ferguson has a detailed municipal code under which people can be fined for housing code violations, walking in the middle of the road, failing to cut the grass, letting a dog off the leash, etc. The report cites no evidence that these ordinances were passed to target blacks. They are probably left over from the white-suburb days.
Ferguson issues more than 22,000 citations and summonses a year–which is a lot for a city whose population has held steady at about 21,000 for the last 25 years. However, there can be more than one citation or summons for the same crime, because Ferguson writes more citations and charges more fines if a violator fails to pay on time or misses a court date. Missouri state law requires that the fine be adjusted in accordance with a defendant’s ability pay, and Ferguson reportedly does not do much of that–thought it accepts monthly installments if an offender can’t pay all at once.
People who don’t pay can be arrested and jailed. The report cites the case of a woman who got two parking tickets in 2007 for a total fine of $151. Seven years later, she had missed so many payments and court dates that although she had paid $550, she still owed $541, and had been arrested and jailed more than once.
This certainly sounds harsh and may represent a particularly aggressive system of fines and collections. However, a city must have a credible way to make people pay fines, and the threat of jail was probably all that was needed when Ferguson was mostly white. Now, with a large population of blacks, people are apparently going to jail for failing to pay parking tickets.
Ferguson’s collections seem especially harsh in light of records DOJ found of people with city connections having violations “fixed.” “Your ticket of $200 has magically disappeared!” writes a court clerk to a friend. Corruption is infuriating, but, alas, not unique to Ferguson.
The report makes much of the fact that only four of Ferguson’s 54 sworn police officers are black, and argues that having more black officers would improve relations with “the community.” Needless to say, DOJ does not mention findings that black corrections and police officers can also abuse blacks, sometimes spectacularly so.
But there is a curious gap in the report: It does not quote a single one of these four officers. From the very start, everything about Ferguson has been about allegations of “racism.” Surely, the first thing the DOJ investigators did was go straight to those officers and grill them. Why are they not quoted? We can only assume that it is because either none of them said anything to support charges of “racism” or that they, themselves, were guilty of some of the misbehavior cited in the report.
Violating the Constitution
DOJ’s main charges against the Ferguson Police Department are that:
Officers violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force. Officers frequently infringe on residents’ First Amendment rights, interfering with their right to record police activities and making enforcement decisions based on the content of individuals’ expression.
The question of “reasonable suspicion” is tricky, and was at the heart of the suit against New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy. How suspicious does someone have to look in order for a policeman legitimately to stop or search him? Can an officer consider race? No police department has consistent answers.
The report cites cases that certainly sound bad. A black man was parked by a playground in a car with windows tinted darker than the Ferguson code allows. An officer walked up and accused him of being a pedophile, ordered him out of the car, frisked him, demanded to search the car, pointed his gun, and arrested the man when he refused to permit the search.
In another case, a black man was waiting at a bus stop when a policeman pulled up and told him to “Get the f**k over here.” He demanded that the man produce ID, and when he wanted to know why, replied, “Stop being a smart ass and give me your ID.” The man was released after an ID check.
Two sisters were stopped in a car on the street. An officer arrested one because she would not show ID, and arrested the other for getting out of the car after he ordered her to stay inside. The sisters spent three hours in jail.
A woman went to the scene of an accident in which her fiancé was injured. She wanted to go comfort him, and was arrested and jailed when she refused to stay on the sidewalk as the officer ordered.
A man was stopped for a faulty brake light but swears that it was working. He says officers would not let him get out the car to check whether the light was working. He thinks he was racially profiled.
The report also cites cases in which people were cited or arrested simply for swearing at an officer or for refusing to stop taking videos with a cell phone.
There are many cases like these in the report, but what really happened? DOJ clearly got at least some these stories straight from “the community” with no attempt to verify them. In the introduction to the report it explains that it interviewed hundreds of civilians, that it contacted ten neighborhood associations, and several community and advocacy groups. Some of these things probably happened, but we should not forget the stories “witnesses” told of Michael Brown being shot in the back, or on his knees with his hands in the air.
Some Ferguson procedures probably are improper. DOJ reports that one officer told investigators that when he stops a car he asks for ID from everyone in it, and if passengers refuse he cites and sometimes arrests them. Apparently, a policeman does not have the right to card a non-driver unless there is probable cause to suspect a crime. DOJ cites this as an example of bad police training, and perhaps it is, but it is hard to imagine that it is unique to Ferguson.
DOJ also accuses the FPD of using force illegally, as punishment rather than to stop a physical threat. This is probably true. In one case, an officer saw on a security camera that a prisoner was peeing out through the bars of his cell door onto the prison floor. When the officer went to tell the prisoner to stop, some of the urine hit his leg, and he tasered the prisoner through the bars of the cell.
In another case, a drunk prisoner climbed onto the bars of his cell and refused repeated commands to come down. An officer fired a taser at him from outside the cell door, and the prisoner fell to the ground.
One officer reportedly punched a handcuffed prisoner who had spat on him. Correct procedure would be to lock the prisoner in the back of the patrol car.
These cases sound like improper police violence–though in response to provocation. If FPD officers sometimes lose their tempers they are surely not unique.
DOJ also reports that FPD makes it difficult for citizens to complain about officer misbehavior, and cites an example:
[A]n officer investigating a report of a theft at a dollar store interrogated a minister pumping gas into his church van about the theft. The man alleged that he provided his identification to the officer and offered to return to the store to prove he was not the thief. The officer instead handcuffed the man and drove him to the store. The store clerk reported that the detained man was not the thief, but the officer continued to keep the man cuffed, allegedly calling him ‘f*****g stupid’ for asking to be released from the cuffs. The man went directly to FPD to file a complaint upon being released by the officer. FPD conducted an investigation but, because the complainant did not respond to a cell phone message left by the investigator within 13 days, reclassified the complaint as ‘withdrawn,’ even as the investigator noted that the complaint of improper detention would otherwise have been sustained, and noted that the ‘[e]mployee has been counseled and retraining is forthcoming.’
This sounds like misbehavior, too, and one could argue that it wasn’t fair to classify the complaint as “withdrawn” just because the preacher was never heard from again. However, the FPD also recognized that the officer was at fault, and retrained him. Is this really evidence of a department gone wrong?
DOJ makes much of the idea that FPD has lost the “trust of the community,” but some of the complaints about the department border on the comical:
In another instance, after a woman called police to report a domestic disturbance and was given a summons for an occupancy permit violation, she said, according to the officer’s report, that she ‘hated the Ferguson Police Department and will never call again, even if she is being killed.’
DOJ’s main concern, of course, is not whether FPD does unconstitutional searches or makes doubtful arrests; probably every police department in America does. The real target is “racism,” and DOJ finds it mainly with statistics.
The report repeatedly tells us that blacks are 67 percent of the population of Ferguson but account for 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, 90 percent of documented cases of use of force, and 93 percent of arrests.
This is not surprising at all. A fine breakdown of Ferguson’s population statistics is not available, but the usual pattern when whites flee a city is that older whites–whose property values have sunk as blacks moved in–are the last to go. How many old white people in Ferguson are speeding, walking in the middle of the street, smoking marijuana in public, or loitering at night? Furthermore, the 67-percent-black figure is from the 2010 census; given the trends of the last 25 years, the black percentage could be well over 70 percent.
An officer has discretion about whether to stop a car, so any disproportion in vehicle stops is trotted out as proof of police “racism.” But what about crimes where police don’t have discretion? Paul Kersey at VDARE.com has cumulative figures for Ferguson since 2001. Eight of the nine people arrested for murder in the city have been black. Ninety percent of the 133 people arrested for robbery have been black. All 28 of the people arrested for rape have been black. Ninety-three percent of the 146 people arrested for stealing cars have been black.
So the figures DOJ cites are probably not a sign of police bias at all. There is probably not one PD in the country that does not stop and arrest blacks at a higher rate than whites for the simple reason that they commit more crimes.
The DOJ offers what it considers smoking-gun proof of “racism:” After a traffic stop, blacks are twice as likely to be searched by police, but are 26 percent less likely to have contraband on them.
First of all, that figure is wrong. Among those searched by police, thirty percent of whites and 24 percent of blacks had contraband, but the difference is 20 percent, not 26 percent. [*See calculation below.] Finding percentages is fourth-grade math. If DOJ can’t even get that right, why should we take any of its statistical arguments seriously?
But even the 20 percent figure is probably meaningless. After a traffic stop, the police run a check on outstanding warrants and citations, and the DOJ report makes it clear that blacks have a lot more of them than whites. That justifies a search. Also, DOJ ignores how the drivers or passengers behaved during the stop, and it is a good bet that black drivers behaved differently from white drivers.
DOJ plays games with another number. The FPD has four police dogs, which are trained to bite suspects who don’t behave. The report states dramatically that “FPD’s use of dog bites only against African-American subjects is evidence of discriminatory policing in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and other federal laws.” However, the report says elsewhere that this was the case for every biting incident “for which racial information is available.” There were only 14 of those–a very small sample over a two-year period–and DOJ doesn’t say how many cases there were in which the suspect’s race wasn’t recorded. If only three of those cases involved whites, the black percentage would be 82 percent, right in line with the other percentages the department cites.
DOJ sifted through mountains of FPD and municipal court e-mail, and found “racism.” It cites the following as proof that the statistics cited above are due to conscious racial discrimination.
- A November 2008 email stated that President Barack Obama would not be President for very long because ‘what black man holds a steady job for four years?’
- A March 2010 email mocked African Americans through speech and familial stereotypes, using a story involving child support. One line from the email read: ‘I be so glad that dis be my last child support payment! Month after month, year after year, all dose payments!’
- An April 2011 email depicted President Barack Obama as a chimpanzee.
- A May 2011 email stated: ‘An African-American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination. Two weeks later she received a check for $5,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said, “Crimestoppers.” ‘
- A June 2011 email described a man seeking to obtain ‘welfare’ for his dogs because they are ;mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddies are.’
- An October 2011 email included a photo of a bare-chested group of dancing women, apparently in Africa, with the caption, ‘Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.’
- A December 2011 email included jokes that are based on offensive stereotypes about Muslims.
These email exchanges involved several police and court supervisors, including FPD supervisors and commanders.
The racial animus and stereotypes expressed by these supervisors suggest that they are unlikely to hold an officer accountable for discriminatory conduct . . . .
DOJ ties these jokes to “racial stereotyping:”
Several Ferguson officials told us during our investigation that it is a lack of ‘personal responsibility’ among African-American members of the Ferguson community that causes African Americans to experience disproportionate harm under Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement. . . . While our investigation did not indicate that African Americans are disproportionately irresponsible, it did reveal that, as the above emails reflect, some Ferguson decision makers hold negative stereotypes about African Americans, and lack of personal responsibility is one of them.
Of course the FPD thinks blacks are irresponsible, because they see it all the time, and of course the DOJ refuses to see it that way. The department insists that we join it in the heroic assumption that blacks in Ferguson are no more likely than whites to break the law, and that anybody who thinks otherwise is guilty of “negative stereotypes” or worse.
And because we are forbidden to notice any differences between blacks and whites, we are certainly forbidden to joke about them. The police see blacks at their worst, day in day out. It would be inhuman not to expect them to joke about them. In today’s climate of hysteria, we are supposed to think that anyone who laughs at a racial joke is a brute who hates all black people. This is rubbish. Just as teachers can joke about their students–perhaps even cruelly–without treating them unfairly, an officer can joke about Michele Obama’s high-school reunion and still treat black suspects fairly.
So what does DOJ think FPD has to do? That’s all laid out in 11-1/2 pages of dense type–more than a tenth of the whole report–under the full-caps heading: “CHANGES NECESSARY TO REMEDY FERGUSON’S UNLAWFUL LAW ENFORCEMENT PRACTICES AND REPAIR COMMUNITY TRUST.”
For the police department, DOJ has no fewer than 64 different “necessary changes,” divided into 13 categories. Here’s a sample:
Increase opportunities for officers to have frequent, positive interactions with people outside of an enforcement context, especially groups that have expressed high levels of distrust of police.
Are the police supposed to spend their off-hours playing basketball and dominoes with young blacks? Good luck finding the young blacks.
For the court system there are 44 specific “necessary changes” in 13 different categories. Here’s one:
Initiate a public education campaign to ensure individuals can have an accurate and complete understanding of how Ferguson’s municipal court operates, including that appearance in court without ability to pay an owed fine will not result in arrest.
How is Ferguson possibly going to “ensure” that everyone knows how the municipal court works?
These “necessary changes” are a fanciful list dreamed up by federal bureaucrats who never cuffed a perp, and would be an impossible burden on a city with 100 times Ferguson’s budget.
So what are Ferguson’s options? Tim Fitch, the former head of the St. Louis County Police Department, says the recommendations are too expensive to follow. The only other option is to fight DOJ’s allegations in court. The government would put 100 lawyers on the case, and Ferguson would go broke paying its own lawyers. This means there is a good chance the FPD will cease to exist, and Ferguson policing will be taken over by a larger agency. This would be a fine irony, since DOJ’s number-one category of “necessary changes” is “Implement a Robust System of True Community Policing.”
Is the Ferguson Police Department a model of by-the-book policing? Probably not. Is it a den of racists who spend on-duty time doing the complicated paperwork on arrests of blacks they know are innocent? Certainly not.
The FPD is probably a perfectly ordinary small-town police department that cuts some corners and abuses a few people but generally keeps the town safe. It has gone through the meat-grinder because Eric Holder needs “racists.” Officer Darren Wilson slipped through his fingers but he did Ferguson one better: He got the whole department.
[*How to calculate the percentage.] To find by what percent 24 is smaller than 30, you divide the difference between the two figures (6) by 30 to get 0.2, which is 20 percent. DOJ stupidly divided by 24, which is 0.25 or 25 percent. (It must have gotten 26 percent because the earlier percentages have been rouned.)
To understand DOJ’s error better, imagine that whites had contraband 50 percent of the time, and blacks only 25 percent. The way DOJ did the math, (50-25)/25 = 1.0, would mean that blacks were 100 percent less like to have contraband–an absurd result. The correct calculation is (50-25)/50 = 0.5, or 50 percent less likely.