Through the late summer and into the fall, no issue in America was more polarizing than the shooting of Michael Brown and the demonstrations of public anger that it sparked. Objective reality seemed to have vanished. The “facts” you saw or believed or told other people depended almost entirely on your prior commitments, what news sources you trusted, and who your friends were.
In Ferguson’s African-American community, everybody knew somebody who knew somebody who had seen Brown gunned down in cold blood, his hands up, trying to surrender. Meanwhile the police (and later the prosecutor) were doing Darren Wilson’s public relations, selectively leaking whatever evidence supported Wilson’s story or made Michael Brown look like a thug.
When the prosecutor organized a defense of Wilson in front of the grand jury, the result — no indictment — seemed predetermined and changed very few minds. If you had believed Wilson from the start, you felt vindicated. But if not, the Brown’s murder was just one more example of police misconduct swept under the rug.
The federal Department of Justice was uniquely situated to bridge the gap. It had the direct access to the witnesses and evidence that the community lacked, and the desire to find the truth that the police and prosecutor seemed to lack.
Wednesday, the Department of Justice released two reports, one specifically about the Brown shooting and the other examining the general state of policing in Ferguson. Taken as a whole, the two reports fit the narrative of neither side. But I heard a convincing ring of truth in them.
Policing in Ferguson. You get the clearest picture if you read the general report first, because the community’s response to the Brown shooting makes no sense until you understand its long-term relationship to the FPD.
The essence of the problem in Ferguson can be summarized in one sentence:
Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.
In other words, the City of Ferguson relies on fines for a major portion of its revenue. It regularly budgets for fines to increase, and it pressures the police department to meet its budget goals by finding more offenses it can cite citizens for. Its municipal court is an opaque, inflexible system that is hard to navigate, particularly if you are poor and/or lack transportation.
As a result, a minor initial offense can snowball into an endless and expensive series of interactions if a citizen fails to appear in court when expected (whether notification of a court date has been received or not) or fails to pay the full fine assessed (regardless of the citizen’s ability to pay).
In short, the Ferguson justice system is predatory and the citizens are the prey.
The report illustrates with many examples — most taken from the FPD’s own files — the following series of abuses:
- Police regularly stop citizens without probable cause of any wrong-doing.
- They demand that citizens submit to unjustified searches of their persons or vehicles.
- Refusal of unlawful commands or attempts to claim constitutional rights are met with punitive arrests and/or violence.
- While in custody, citizens are controlled by violence and threats of violence. For example, protesting the basis of an arrest, passively refusing to cooperate, or verbally abusing an officer frequently results in being shot with a taser.
- The FPD ignores its own system for tracking officers’ use of force. When supervisors do submit a report on a use of force, typically only the arrest report written by the officer in question is consulted, even if that report contains internal contradictions.
- Complaints from the public are discouraged, are frequently ignored, and can result in punitive investigations of the complaining citizens.
- Officers are rated and promoted based largely on their “productivity”, i.e., the number of revenue-producing citations they write. Citizen complaints or repeated use of force does not significantly affect an officer’s career.
The damage done by a rogue police force can be mitigated by the courts, if the courts are motivated to pursue justice. However,
The Ferguson municipal court handles most charges brought by FPD, and does so not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue.
The municipal court, in other words, is part of the predatory system.
Racism. The report describes a general pattern of abusing the powerless, with sections on the mentally ill or mentally handicapped (whose inability to comprehend or respond to police commands is often taken as resistance and met with violence), and students (the officers assigned to Ferguson high schools escalate situations towards arrests — more revenue! — rather than trying to establish and maintain peace).
But the largest of these sections focuses on racism. The FPD, the city government, and the municipal court are overwhelming staffed by whites, in a city that is two-thirds black. Blacks are disproportionately the prey of the municipal justice system, and the more extreme the police action, the more likely the victim is to be black. For example,
The department’s own records demonstrate that, as with other types of force, canine officers use dogs out of proportion to the threat posed by the people they encounter, leaving serious puncture wounds to nonviolent offenders, some of them children. Furthermore, in every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the subject was African American. This disparity, in combination with the decision to deploy canines in circumstances with a seemingly low objective threat, suggests that race may play an impermissible role in officers’ decisions to deploy canines.
The more an officer’s discretion is involved in an arrest, the more likely the arrested citizen is black. For example,
With respect to speeding offenses for all roads, African Americans account for 72% of citations based on radar or laser, but 80% of citations based on other or unspecified methods. Thus, as evaluated by radar, African Americans violate the law at lower rates than as evaluated by FPD officers.
Another factor was the practice of police and court employees “fixing” traffic tickets and other municipal citations for friends and relatives. Given the racial composition of the city’s staff, the recipients of these favors were probably overwhelmingly white.
In addition to statistics, the report culled a number of racist emails from the police and court systems. Like:
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.”
Justice Department investigators could find no record of recipients objecting to such emails or of superiors reprimanding the senders. Often such offensive jokes were forwarded to others.
Reading the report, I was left with an impression not of Klan-like, get-the-niggers racism, but of widespread racial stereotyping that affected decisions at all levels. Being a young black male was in itself seen as probable cause of wrong-doing that police should look into. Uncooperative blacks were seen as inherently violent and dangerous, justifying police violence to control them. Violence directed at blacks was considered a less serious matter than similar incidents against whites* would be. The overall predatory nature of the system was more easily ignored or rationalized because its victims were mostly black.
Michael Brown. When Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in broad daylight on a city street in front of many witnesses, the African-American community saw a chance for some good to come of this tragedy: Maybe finally the police had done something so outrageous that it couldn’t be covered up. Maybe finally the world would have to notice the abusive system they lived in, and a policeman would have to pay.
It is no wonder, then, that the community was quick to believe the worst about Darren Wilson. Accounts in which he gunned down Brown for no real reason fit very well with the accounts they heard every day from their friends and neighbors: of dogs set on young blacks for no real reason, or tasers used when blacks mouthed off or just didn’t move fast enough to suit police.
Likewise, it is no wonder that witnesses saw what they expected to see, that they exaggerated what they did see, or that they stayed away from TV cameras if what they saw supported Wilson’s account.
The Justice Department’s report on the Brown shooting recommends no charges against Darren Wilson. It goes through the evidence in great detail, and concludes not that everything happened the way Wilson said, but that it could have happened that way. (In Mythbusters terms, Wilson’s story is “plausible”.)
Wilson’s account goes like this: He tried to stop Brown on suspicion of a petty theft (of a handful of small cigars from a convenience store). Brown punched him and reached into his vehicle to struggle for Wilson’s gun. Wilson fired the gun once while inside the car, causing Brown to run away. Wilson pursued, and Brown turned to charge him. Wilson started shooting again, but Brown did not stop until Wilson had fired the fatal shot to the top of Brown’s head.
None of the physical evidence contradicts that story. Some eye-witness testimony supports it. The testimony that contradicts Wilson would not impress a jury, because there are no witnesses who
- contradict Wilson
- tell a story consistent with the physical evidence
- have told the same story consistently to all investigators.
So the Justice Department concludes that prosecuting Wilson would be a waste of time.
The separate accounts of the various witnesses paint a picture of more than just the Brown shooting: a community that wants this shooting to be what it needs rather than what the incident was. Again and again, witnesses against Wilson confess that they have mixed the part of the event they saw with what they have heard on the street. Witnesses supporting Wilson are reluctant to come forward, either because they want Wilson convicted or because they don’t want to be known in the community as the witness who got Wilson off. Some just don’t talk and we don’t know why.
Putting the two reports together, I am left with questions about Wilson, even if I know that I couldn’t vote to convict him. Was killing Brown really necessary, or was it the kind of punitive violence that is endemic in the FPD? To what extent was Wilson worried about his own safety, and to what extent was he just angry that Brown disrespected his authority? (For example, Wilson explains why he reached for his gun rather than his taser during the struggle in his SUV. He doesn’t explain why — given a brief period of time to collect himself before pursuing Brown — he didn’t switch weapons.) Was it really necessary to keep firing, or did the stereotype of the unstoppable black beast affect Wilson’s decision? (Wilson’s choice of words — comparing Brown to a demon — suggests it did.)
I’ll never know for sure. But I couldn’t convict Wilson just on my questions. He should go free.
Justice. In the end, although the Justice Department hasn’t given the black citizens of Ferguson Darren Wilson’s scalp, it has given them what they really need: Exposure of the corrupt and predatory system they live under, and some hope of relief.
Friday, Attorney General Holder pledged that the Justice Department is “prepared to use all the power that we have … to ensure that the situation changes.”
Asked if that included dismantling the Ferguson Police Department, Holder said, “If that’s what’s necessary, we’re prepared to do that.”
Sunday’s NYT illustrated all the ways that Ferguson is not unique, particularly in St. Louis County, but also in communities across the country. There are other predatory police-and-court systems out there. Those towns and cities will be watching Ferguson closely. If the DoJ follows through, the effects could ripple across the nation.
That may not be the conclusion that either side was asking for, but it may be the best ending this tragic story could have received.
* For contrast, consider this:
In one 2012 incident, for example, officers reported responding to a fight in progress at a local bar that involved white suspects. Officers reported encountering “40-50 people actively fighting, throwing bottles and glasses, as well as chairs.” The report noted that “one subject had his ear bitten off.” While the responding officers reported using force, they only used “minimal baton and flashlight strikes as well as fists, muscling techniques and knee strikes.” While the report states that “due to the amount of subjects fighting, no physical arrests were possible,” it notes also that four subjects were brought to the station for “safekeeping.”