Justice Department to Fault Ferguson Police, Seeing Racial Bias in Traffic Stops

Matt Apuzzo, New York Times, March 1, 2015

The Justice Department has nearly completed a highly critical report accusing the police in Ferguson, Mo., of making discriminatory traffic stops of African-Americans that created years of racial animosity leading up to an officer’s shooting of a black teenager last summer, law enforcement officials said.

According to several officials who have been briefed on the report’s conclusions, the report criticizes the city for disproportionately ticketing and arresting African-Americans and relying on the fines to balance the city’s budget. The report, which is expected to be released as early as this week, will force Ferguson officials to either negotiate a settlement with the Justice Department or face being sued by it on civil rights charges. Either way, the result is likely to be significant changes inside the Ferguson Police Department, which is at the center of a national debate over race and policing.

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While the Justice Department’s exact findings are not yet known, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who is expected to leave office in the next few weeks, and other officials have said publicly that their investigation has focused on the use of excessive force and the treatment of prisoners in local jails as well as the traffic stops.

Blacks accounted for 86 percent of traffic stops in 2013 but make up 63 percent of the population, according to the most recent data published by the Missouri attorney general. And once they were stopped, black drivers were twice as likely to be searched, even though searches of white drivers were more likely to turn up contraband.

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Investigators do not need to prove that Ferguson’s policies are racially motivated or that the police intentionally singled out minorities. They need to show only that police tactics had a “disparate impact” on African-Americans and that this was avoidable. Nevertheless, the Justice Department’s report is expected to include a reference to a racist joke that was circulated by email among city officials, according to several law enforcement officials.

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The Ferguson case will be the last in a long string of civil rights investigations into police departments that Mr. Holder has directed during his tenure. Since he became attorney general in 2009, the Justice Department has opened more than 20 such investigations and issued strong rebukes of departments in Cleveland and Albuquerque, accusing them of excessive force and unwarranted shootings.

The Ferguson report, however, is expected to more closely resemble last summer’s report into police activities in Newark. There, as in Ferguson, the police stopped black people at a significantly higher rate than whites. “This disparity is stark and unremitting,” the Justice Department wrote in that report, which concluded that African-Americans “bear the brunt” of the city’s unconstitutional police practices.

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{snip} Mr. Holder has pledged that the Ferguson investigation–by far the most closely watched during his tenure–would be fair and independent. “I’m confident people will be satisfied with the results,” he said.

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