As most of us are aware, Darren Wilson, the former Ferguson police officer who was not indicted by the State of Missouri for killing Michael Brown, will also avoid federal charges for his actions.
This announcement comes just a week after the Department of Justice announced that it also wouldn’t seek federal charges against George Zimmerman, who was not convicted for killing Trayvon Martin. The announcement also comes only a couple of days after outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in his exit interview that it was “too hard to prosecute civil rights cases,” and that he would spend his last days in office pushing for “a new standard of proof for civil-rights offenses.”
Perhaps nothing illustrates how hard it truly is to prosecute in these cases more than the DOJ’s own Ferguson Report, which was released on Wednesday. You can read the 102-page report in its entirety here. While far removed from its roots as a “sundown town,” the report notes that “some within Ferguson still have difficulty coming to terms with Ferguson’s changing demographics and seeing Ferguson’s African American and white residents as equals in civic life.” This inequality has resulted in the Ferguson Police Department and courts, co-signed by city government, overseeing a racially bias justice system, which made “it exceedingly difficult to resolve a case and exceedingly easy to run afoul of the court.”
African Americans accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of citations, and 93 percent of FPD’s arrests in from 2012 to 2014. Canine units were often used without cause and against non-violent offenders, all of whom were Black. And racial jokes were often exchanged by FPD supervisors, including a May 2011 email that read as follows: “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.'”
Yet as bad as it sounds, none of that compares to what could best be described as the extortion and financial drudgery predicated mainly on the economically insecure. Point blank, once you found yourself in the system, it became hard to get out. And “getting in” could be caused by something as minor as a citation for rolling through a stop sign.
Or as the report notes: “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community.”
It’s a system which was pretty much tailor-made to be abused. Ferguson is home to roughly 21,000 residents, with African Americans making up the majority of the population (67 percent according to the 2010 Census). Although the white population has decreased to 29 percent, white people still maintain control over the local government, the police department and most of the other governing bodies. Likewise, most of its law and civil affairs enforcement positions were intentionally funneled through municipal codes, even when a corresponding and likely more fair state offense existed.
This power vacuum enabled Ferguson’s law enforcement and court systems to run unchecked. Between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2014, approximately 90,000 citations and summonses for municipal violations were issued, even as “the number of charges for many of the most serious offenses covered by the municipal code — e.g., Assault, Driving While Intoxicated, and Stealing — has remained relatively constant.”
The concentration of power also meant that the city would receive a “significant and increasing amount of revenue” as a result of these citations. As noted in the report: “while other municipalities’ parking fines generally range from $5 to $100, Ferguson’s was $102. The chart noted also that the charge for “Weeds/Tall Grass” was as little as $5 in one city but, in Ferguson, it ranged from $77 to $102.”
Traffic citations are even worse. In 2010, a little more than $1.38 million of Ferguson’s $11.07 million in its general fund came from fines and fees collected by the court. By 2013, $2.46 million from fines and fee collections went into the general fund.
These biases and abuses weren’t coincidental. According to the report, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson would add extra officers to the schedule and express that the aim was to maximize revenue. And it was not uncommon for law enforcement officers to issue three or four charges and citations (at least) in one stop. There were even friendly competitions among officers to see who could issue the largest number of citations during a single stop. City officials, including the finance director and the city manager commended Chief Jackson for “meeting his revenue quota.” And any officer who did not write enough tickets was disciplined.
Since the majority of infractions are brought under municipal code, cases are also handled locally through the Ferguson municipal courts system, which has the “authority to issue and enforce judgments, issue warrants for search and arrest, hold parties in contempt, and order imprisonment as a penalty for contempt.” Under Missouri Supreme Court rules, violators are usually only required to appear in court for violations resulting in the following: personal injury or property damage; driving while intoxicated; driving without a proper license; and attempting to elude a police officer. But as noted in the report, “Ferguson requires far more defendants to appear in court than is required under state law.”
Likewise, court sessions were only held three to four times a month and it was not uncommon for as many as 500 people to appear before a judge during a single three-hour session. Most times, a defendant left with an often considerable “monetary penalty payable to the City of Ferguson, plus court fees.” And as the report notes, “violations that would normally not result in a penalty of imprisonment can, and frequently do, lead to municipal warrants, arrests, and jail time.” Many would come back by way of arrest warrants if they failed to make restitution or missed a court appearance.
Just as Chief Jackson put an emphasis on quotas, the report explains that the courts too had a “correct volume” of cases on the docket. As noted in the report, data from the Missouri State Courts Administrator showed that in 2009, the municipal court had roughly 24,000 traffic cases and 28,000 non-traffic cases pending. However, by October 31, 2014, the caseload had almost doubled. And because most people had multiple offenses, a single court session would typically consider between 1,200-1,500 offenses.
The overcrowded courts meant that court dates were, at one point, being scheduled as much as six months after the original citation date. Because of this, the courts needed to hire more people, and in 2013, Ferguson’s city manager secured city council’s approval to do just that. To justify the added expense, the city manager told the council that the courts were “setting new all-time records in fines and forfeitures” and that the funding “will be more than covered by the increase in revenues.”
Added to the astronomical court fees and delay in due process, the report notes that people were “frequently” provided “with incorrect information about the date and time of their assigned court session.” Many times, these failures would act as barriers and sometimes resulted in people getting warrants for a failure to appear.
According to the report, by the end of last year, the courts had issued 16,000 people with outstanding arrest warrants, with as many as 9,007 warrants (they applied to 32,975 offenses) being issued in 2013 alone. In the majority of cases, a Failure to Appear warrant would result in additional fines and fees: $75.50, plus a $26.50 court cost.
Although there is a program available for offenders 19 years or younger, Ferguson also doesn’t have community service as an alternative to fines. As such, folks who could afford to pay paid upfront while many others went into poorly explained and equally poorly executed payment plans. And of course, there were discrepancies in how the police and the courts set, accepted and forfeited bond payments. As noted in the report, “One woman, discussed above, received two parking tickets for a single violation in 2007 that then totaled $151 plus fees. Over seven years later, she still owed Ferguson $541 —after already paying $550 in fines and fees, having multiple arrest warrants issued against her, and being arrested and jailed on several occasions.”
The report concludes that the pressure to raise revenue has “resulted in a pattern and practice of constitutional violations.” In particular, law enforcement frequently violated individuals’ Fourth Amendment right by “stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force.” The Ferguson PD also was also known to “frequently infringe on residents’ First Amendment rights” by arresting them for a number of protected conducts including talking back to officers; recording officers’ activities; and lawfully protesting personal injustices. And as the report notes, most times these violations were issued in retaliation.
In one ridiculously noteworthy incident, two African American teenage girls were accosted by police for play fighting in the streets. One of the girls gave a middle finger to a white witness and an officer ordered her over for a chat. When the friend who she was play fighting with accompanied her to talk to the officer, the friend was forcefully arrested for refusing to leave. The officer also forcefully arrested the other girl for touching his shoulder. Although the girls had committed no legal offense, officers hit the two teens with a slew of charges, including the following: disorderly conduct for giving the middle finger and cursing; manner of walking for play-fighting in the street; failure to comply; interference with officer; assault on a law enforcement officer; and endangering the welfare of a child (themselves and their schoolmates).
The report also noted that FPD officers “have a pattern of resorting to force too quickly with vulnerable populations,” including juvenile students. With all that in mind, how did the DOJ not have enough to file federal charges?
One thing is for sure: There should be little doubt here that this is a kind of culture that not only feeds financially off of a people, mostly poor and Black, but it also contributed to the wrongful death of Michael Brown. And in many respects, the culture in Ferguson is reflective of how many law enforcement agencies and court jurisdictions operate across the country. As a Facebook friend said of the findings in the report, “the rule, not the exception…”