CBS DC, March 6, 2015
President Barack Obama said the type of racial discrimination found in Ferguson, Missouri, is not unique to that police department, and he cast law enforcement reform as a chief struggle for today’s civil rights movement.
Obama said improving civil rights and civil liberties with police is one of the areas that “requires collective action and mobilization” 50 years after pivotal civil rights marches brought change to the country. The president made his first remarks about this week’s Justice Department report of racial bias in Ferguson, which found officers routinely discriminating against blacks by using excessive force.
“I don’t think that is typical of what happens across the country, but it’s not an isolated incident,” Obama told The Joe Madison Radio Show on Sirius XM radio’s Urban View channel. “I think that there are circumstances in which trust between communities and law enforcement have broken down, and individuals or entire departments may not have the training or the accountability to make sure that they’re protecting and serving all people and not just some.”
In another interview with radio host Tom Joyner, Obama said that despite the progress in race relations over the past 50 years, the Justice Department findings about Ferguson show that civil rights “is an unfinished project.”
“There is work to be done right now,” he said.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder called the federal report a “searing” portrait of a police department that he said functions as a collection agency for the city, with officers prioritizing revenue from fines over public safety and trouncing the constitutional rights of minorities.
“It is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,” Holder said.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said the city had cooperated with the Justice Department and has made some changes, including a diversity training program for city employees. But the Rev. Al Sharpton, the chief eulogist at Michael Brown’s funeral, countered that Knowles’ remarks–during a six-minute news conference where the mayor took no questions–were “mostly evasive, insignificant, and showed a total failure to address the need for a change in leadership at the police department.”
While the federal government declined to prosecute Wilson, it found the shooting occurred in an environment of systematic mistreatment of blacks, in which officials circulated racist emails without punishment and black residents were disproportionately stopped and searched without cause, fined for petty offenses and subjected to excessive force.
The report found its lack of racial diversity–only four of 54 commissioned officers are black–undermined community trust. It also said the city relied heavily on fines to raise revenue and issued arrest warrants for minor infractions including jaywalking and late fees. The confrontation that led to Brown’s death began when Wilson directed him and a friend to move from the street to the sidewalk.
Between 2012 and 2014, black drivers were more than twice as likely as others to be searched during routine traffic stops, but 26 percent less likely to be carrying contraband. [Editor’s Note: This figure is incorrect. See our analysis here.]