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Policing the Police
Ferguson Abuse: the Rule, Not the Exception?

The controversy over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, was ignited and fueled by the culture of corruption and abuse in the area’s police department. Police routinely collected fines from residents for minor crimes, and those who couldn’t pay were crushed under debt. A new DOJ report on Ferguson sheds more light on how abusive the standard police practices had become (h/t Marginal Revolution). Residents were tazed for no justifiable reason, for example, and lost their jobs over trumped-up charges. More:

This culture within FPD influences officer activities in all areas of policing, beyond just ticketing. Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence. Police supervisors and leadership do too little to ensure that officers act in accordance with law and policy, and rarely respond meaningfully to civilian complaints of officer misconduct. The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement on free expression, as well as retaliation for protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

This report is jaw-dropping stuff. The systemic culture of abuse in places like Ferguson accounts in part for why Michael Brown had become such a flashpoint: he was a symbol of an entire population’s oppression by a perverse police power. Whatever you think about that case, it is clearer than ever just how serious the problems in that city are—and how much it needs reform. And note that Ferguson is by no means an outlier. Recent revelations about secret interrogation sites in Chicago suggest that these kinds of problems are much more national and pervasive than we would like to assume.

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  • Laurence Levin

    Yes. The petty harassment of Americans by the police has been going on for a while. Obama and Holder could have made a huge difference on this years ago. However this report is completely political and hypocritical. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms which is part of the Justice department and so reports in to Eric Holder is in fact one of the most abusive departments.

  • Andrew Allison

    There’s no question that the controversy over the shooting of Michael Brown was ignited and fueled by the culture of corruption and abuse in the town’s local government (it was the courts, not the police, who imposed the fines and penalties). There also appears to be little question, following both Grand Jury and DoJ investigations, that Michael Brown, having just robbed a convenience store and under the influence of drugs, attempted to take a police officer’s weapon and was killed in self-defense. The issue here is the gross violation of the civil rights of the Black citizens of Ferguson. That said, the lawlessness of the response to the event should also be of concern. Whatever happened to the non-violent protest which proved so spectacularly successful for the Civil Rights Movement?

    • Corlyss

      “There’s no question that the controversy over the shooting of Michael Brown was ignited and fueled by the culture of corruption and abuse in the town’s local government”
      Baloney. It was ignited by that lying scumbag accomplice who was looking at charges in the strong-arm robbery. His lies were picked up by street trash who had no idea what happened but who saw a chance to flip the usual story of black thug resists arrest and pays the price for it.

      • Tom

        It’s pretty clear that the city council saw the police department as a revenue source first and law enforcement second.
        Holder, Sharpton, and crew are race-baiting charlatans, but even a broken clock is right twice today.

        • Corlyss

          On what do you base your assumptions about the police dept. and the city government. Post-riots media reports form “news” organizations determined to support the racist trope befor they ever left NYC, DC, & LA?

          • Tom

            Yes and no. Yes, the sources were media outlets.
            No, because A. “sees the police department as a revenue source” is an accusation that can be made without crying “RAAAAAAACIST!” and B. when discussing whether or not to remove a judge who seemed to not be taking their job seriously (he was maintained), one of the responses was “it goes without saying the City cannot afford to lose any efficiency in our Courts, nor experience any decrease in our Fines and Forfeitures.” You don’t need to spin that.

          • Corlyss

            No on both counts. It’s a known fact that indigent defendants pay their court fines late and incrementally. That’s not “racist.” In most jurisdictions, fines are set by the nature of the charge. That’s not “racist.” It’s a known fact that blacks and Hispanics commit disproportionately more crime than their percentage of the population. That’s not “racist.” It’s fact, upon fact, upon fact. A town like Ferguson is like a lot of bigger and smaller cities who can’t afford to take in any less money or they will be forced to cut services.
            The investigation and the report are BS liberal kabuki of the kind that Washington DC specializes in. I don’t expect you to believe that, but you should at least acknowledge that just because it be written down in a report don’t mean it is per se believable, esp. coming out of Holder’s DoJ. The man has shamelessly created a malicious prosecution factory aimed at “the white establishment.” He and his vacuous protector have set back race relations in this country 60 years.


          • Tom

            The first few sentences of your paragraph were kind of my point. And, honestly, if one of your considerations for keeping or firing a judge who seems more interested in getting things done quickly than, well, justice, is “we need the money,” you have a problem.
            Second, as regards Holder and crew–no duh. Of course they’re a bunch of race-baiters. However, just because a bunch of jerks say something doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The Nazis found Katyn, and the Soviets found Auschwitz.

    • Tom

      It’s patently obvious that neither group really deserved anyone’s support in this matter.

  • wigwag

    If the report is accurate, the reality is appalling. But why should we assume that the findings are an unbiased recitation of the facts? Isn’t it equally possible that the Justice Department, which had just announced that there was no basis for filing federal civil rights charges against the officer who killed Brown in self defense, felt the need to criticize the police department to even the score and prevent more rioting?

    This is, after all, Eric Holder’s Justice Depatment. Is there anything about Holder’s tenure that inspires confidence in him or the agency he leads? If an independent and unbiased investigation arrived at these findings it’s horrendous. But if it’s an Eric Holder hit job the report should be tossed in the circular file cabinet.

    • jeburke

      Exactly. These are accusations which should be treated with some skepticism given that the subject has been so highly politicized and the Obama administration all but openly sided with the demonstrators before anyone had a chance to collect any data.

      But there is another, more serious problem with this. While Ferguson officials are offering no defense against these accusations, obviously feeling that retreat from the spotlight is wise, and no one in political life will dare to question the DoJ’s charges lest they be accused of racism, the Justice Department’s use of the concept of “disparate impact” in evaluating the fairness of criminal law enforcement ought to raise a few eyebrows. It’s one thing to say, as we’ve done for decades, that a disproportionately small number of Black employees is prima facie evidence of bias in hiring. Law enforcement is a different matter. If 90% of the arrests in Ferguson are of Blacks, is not the fact that Ferguson is 67% Black largely irrelevant? Unless one can show that Ferguson police deliberately avoid arresting whites and focus their time and energy only on arresting Blacks, the relevant statistic is whether 90% of the crimes are committed by Black people. If police are supposed to aim to make only 67 % of their total arrests of Blacks — for that is the implication — are they to ignore 23% of the crimes committed? Crimes the victims of which are usually other Black people? The daunting problem of crime in Black communities has many causes, but it won’t be solved by wishing it away. Moreover, much the same “disparate impact” can be found in almost any city in America without the need for any in-depth investigation For example,.in next door St. Louis which is 50% Black, in 2012 Blacks accounted for 78% of total crimes and an astonishing 97% of murders. So should there not be a DoJ investigation of St. Louis?

      The findings about enforcement of traffic and other regulations as a revenue generator is another matter. On the one hand, it is no surprise that Ferguson depends on such revenue, because virtually every municipality in the country does the same. On the other, if it were found that police and local courts were giving a pass on such violations to whites and deliberately targeting Blacks for tickets and fines, that would be a serious matter. However, again, the government’s reliance on “disparate impact” alone, with no evidence of deliberate bias, should give one pause. As with crime, it may well be that there are legitimate reasons for this result. Unfortunately, because Ferguson leaders are offering no explanations or defense, we’ll never know.

      • Anthony

        Desperately wanting to avoid a beneath the surface long “elephant in the room” of America’s national identity (race), hypotheticals and legitimate counter-factuals do little in facilitating a frank examining of signal factors underlying the many Fergusons extant. Underscoring crime and demographic statistics as some rationale to juxtapose flaws/bias may provide both psychological and ritual comfort (for some) but in this instance conflates corruption and disparate practices with valuations and beliefs.

        For purpose of relevance to overriding issue at discussion, the United States locks up more people per capita, for longer times, then any other advanced nation. Most importantly, there are many causes for crime: individual ones such as greed, venality, and pathological passions, but also social ones such as racism and bad economic conditions (and this is not attempt to explain away bad behavior). Similarly, the vast majority of America’s more than 2,000,000 inmates are poor; they are disproportionately Black and Latino, and before incarceration were chronically unemployed or underemployed. More to the point (again the elephant in the room that we all choose to avoid), Blacks tend to get substantially longer prison terms than Whites convicted of the same crimes, even when the Black person is a first-time offender and the White person a second-or third-time offender.

        My point is stats and their use must be considered within context and not figuratively to give pause to an overriding police and criminal justice apparatus certainly all too tainted by racial, gender, ideological, and class predilections.

        • Loader2000

          Let me re-state Anthony’s last sentence in a more clear fashion:

          My point is that statistics must be considered within context and not simply used to excuse systematic problems with many police departments regarding a predisposition to come down harder on certain races and ethnic groups, a tendency which has been pretty well documented.

          • Anthony

            Loader, you chose to be more direct and perhaps necessary but I always consider sensibility of potential audience. Nevertheless, thanks and expressed cogently!

        • Josephbleau

          It should be no surprise that the incarcerated are uneducated, unemployed, drug addicted, mentally ill, and poor, that is why they are motivated to be career criminals. The most obvious class difference determining length of sentence for the same crime is male/female, not so much race.

          • Anthony

            There is no surprise more of a social commentary… and “red light” ticketing initiated before Rahm though renegotiated to continue gouging the hard pressed citizens. We’re probably in concurrence.

          • Josephbleau

            Except the recent fraud in the red light cams that has been exposed which shows that the Rham admin has been charging innocent folks, this was not pre Rahm, he did it. Currently ther is a review of all convictions to determine the extent of the government fraud.

          • Anthony

            You’re writing to the “yellow light” time change and other fraud referenced may have been tied to contractor providing service and Rahm’s administration happens to be on watch; criminal charges of which you write may go back to Daley administration – we may have to wait to see how it all shakes out. Clientelism has been an American phenomenon at all governmental levels regrettably (and more often than not at citizen expense).

    • Anthony

      Sensitive subject WigWag for any myriad of reasons as you well know. But here goes. I read MacDonald’s piece in October but reread your City Journal link. After rereading piece, the most insightful take away is “maybe the race of officers has little to do with whether they can police fairly”. I will not aver whether race (among officers) has little or more to do with cited issues but the Ferguson report though not surprising generally still requires citizen attention. Above that, policing is hard work (the police confront dangers and social miseries of a kind most of us can only imagine) and public safety is sine non qua but we (as a society) can certainly benefit from examining cultural milieu from which such corruption and practices as cited (if unbiased) spring. Policing the less privileged has always escaped the even-handed application of the laws and the process is all too frequently tainted by institutional biases.

      As an aside, Heather MacDonald for me relative to her reporting on policing and inner city residents brings equivalent caution to my mind as Eric Holder brings to yours, though I in no way carelessly equate an Attorney General report with reporting of a City Journal contributing editor. Thanks for the link.

    • Andrew Allison

      There’s absolutely nothing about Holder’s blatantly racist tenure that inspires confidence, but the abuse (of everybody’s, not just Blacks) Civil Rights in Ferguson has been well documented. At the risk of being repetitious, and not to excuse the blatant racism in the police department, the fines and penalties were imposed by the courts, not the police. There’s no question that Ferguson is deeply corrupt.

    • FriendlyGoat

      Actually, I’m grateful for Holder and Obama. The culture in the middle management of police departments is completely out of control. Republican administrations will not tell you that.

      DOJ may be FAR, FAR more effective exposing Ferguson’s systemic rot than undertaking another legal case on the shooting of Michael Brown. Look, even TAI is suffering from jaw drop. We need to hear it.

  • Andrew Allison

    MacDonald’s analysis is spot on, but missing one crucial question: are the fines and penalties for non-payment disproportionate for Blacks, or is the Ferguson court system an equal-opportunity revenue generator? I apologise for harping on the subject, but it appears to me to be seminal.

  • Corlyss

    This “investigation” is just more blah blah blah from the usual suspects. If blacks commit 80% of the crime but they are only 13% of the population, do we ignore 67% of the crimes because the implications fall disproportionately on blacks? If 80% of the crime is committed in black neighborhoods, and calls for service come from the beleaguered black residents who have to put up with that “tax on living,” should the cops go to white or Hispanic neighborhoods to look for the criminals, set up road blocks there, and stop traffic in those areas because blacks resent being rousted? Dimwits like Holder and de Blasio seem to think there’s something racist and wrong with police looking for black criminals in black neighborhoods where black residents have reported crimes. Holder et al want to find racism where social collapse is at work and blame the police for trying to service their black populations. This is totally insane! The only thing that can result from his criticisms are paroxysms of useless self-examination and relaxation or elimination of policing in black neighborhoods in order to avoid bogus law suits like the Brown family’s and bogus investigations to which police departments must reply.

  • rheddles

    This report is jaw-dropping stuff.

    Would you have fallen for Goebbels’ official reports also?

  • Bob G

    I’m sorry, quoting the
    Obama / Holder Justice Department diminishes the credibility of this website.

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