Ferguson’s True Criminals

Police stand watch as demonstrators protest the shooting death of Michael Brown on Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.

At every point in the drama of Ferguson, Missouri, from the first protests to the final fires, Americans have argued about the character of the personalities involved. Was Michael Brown a thug or an ordinary kid? Was Darren Wilson a racist, or was he just trying to do his job? In each case, the hope was that you could justify your “side” with the right answer. If Brown was just a criminal, then his death wasn’t a tragedy, and the protests don’t mean anything. If Wilson is a racist, then the community is righteous, and their anger is just.

As it stands, we have good evidence that Brown committed criminal acts, as well as a firm conclusion from the Justice Department that there aren’t sufficient facts to support a criminal indictment against Wilson and that the officer is neither guilty of a civil rights violation nor culpable under federal law. As far as the state goes, the evidence shows that he did what he had to do.

But this conclusion shouldn’t lead anyone to dismiss the discord in Ferguson, which was fueled by stronger forces than Brown’s death. The reason it happened as it did–the reason the anger spilled into protests and rioting–is because of a long history of police mistreatment and unfairness. Journalists covered much of this in the weeks and monthsafter the August protests. But a new review from the Justice Department goes beyond what we know to expand on the Ferguson police practices. The department didn’t just discriminate against black Americans; it targeted them for fines and fees and knowingly violated their constitutional rights.

Take traffic stops. Not only did police stop blacks at a rate greater than their share of the population–from 2012 to 2014, blacks were 67 percent of Ferguson residents but 85 percent of traffic stops–but they were twice as likely to search blacks than they were whites, who were 26 percent more likely to have actual contraband.

You see the same dynamic with small, discretionary infractions. Ninety-five percent of tickets for jaywalking were against black residents, as were 94 percent of all “failure to comply” charges. Either black people were the only Ferguson citizens to jaywalk, or the department was targeting blacks for enforcement. On the rare occasion when police charged whites with these minor offenses, they were 68 percent more likely to have their cases dismissed. And because supervisors awarded promotions on the basis of officer “productivity,” there was little incentive to stop any of this behavior.

In Ferguson, if you are black, you live in the shadow of lawlessness and plunder, directed by city officials and enforced by the police.

The most disturbing statistics are with regard to arrest, incarceration, and police force. Ninety-three percent of all arrests in Ferguson were of black Americans, and 88 percent of use-of-force incidents were against them. In cases where police had warrants, 92 percent were for blacks. Of those arrested for outstanding warrants, 96 percent were black, and among people jailed for more than two days, 95 percent were black. And in a terrible callback to Jim Crow, police used canines exclusively against black residents, including a 14-year-old boy who suffered puncture wounds in his arms, hands, and legs.

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