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Justice Department says Ferguson violated rights; local reaction — disheartened but not surprised

Emanuele Berry | St. Louis Public Radio

Details from a federal civil rights investigation of the Ferguson Police Department began to emerge Tuesday. Reports say the Department of Justice's six-month investigation found Ferguson police violated the U.S. Constitution and were racially biased in their practices.

Ferguson Commission co-chairman, the Rev. Starsky Wilson said what’s being reported on the investigation is expected.  

“As we look at the report, we are disheartened by the things that the report suggest about the police department in Ferguson. But we also find it consistent in the testimony we’ve heard from community members and data that we’ve seen on policing,” Wilson said.

The Department of Justice started its investigation into the practices of the Ferguson Police Department in September, after the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, who was, at the time, a Ferguson police officer. A St.Louis County grand jury declined to charge Wilson with any crime.

Justice officials briefed Ferguson officials on the investigation Tuesday. A complete report from the DOJ is expected to  be made public on Wednesday.

According to The New York Times and NPR:

  • NPR said blacks are disproportionately targeted by police.  "Blacks were 68 percent less likely to have cases dismissed by Ferguson municipal judges and disproportionately likely to be subject to arrest warrants. From October, 2012 to October 2014, 96 percent of people arrested in traffic stops solely for an outstanding warrant were black."
  • The New York Times is reportingthat racist emails were sent between Ferguson officials. "In a November 2008 email, a city official said Barack Obama would not be president long because 'what black man holds a steady job for four years?' The Times reported "Another email included a cartoon depicting African-Americans as monkeys. A third described black women having abortions as a way to curb crime."

The news was not surprising,  Arch City DefendersExecutive Director Thomas Harvey said.

“If you ask any poor person in this region, or any African-American person in this region, they’ll tell you that they are being pulled over because they are black and harassed because they’re poor and that these towns are building their revenue off their backs,” he said.

Harvey said although the report confirms what many already knew, it’s still valuable because it will hopefully bring about change.

“It matters because now St. Louis is going to be shamed or humiliated into doing something or forced through litigation to do something,” he said. “It matters because now you cannot ignore the avalanche of evidence that show systemic racism in our backyards.”

Justin Hansford, a St. Louis University Law professor and activist, says this report could set a new norm.

“Explaining to people in society that racially targeting certain communities for disproportionate amounts of law enforcement is wrong,” Hansford said.  “It’s unethical, it’s unconstitutional, and it’s wrong. Right now I don’t think people are convinced that’s it wrong. People think that it’s justified, that it’s a necessary evil and this report reminds people that no, it’s wrong.”

For many, the report also offered validation. Discriminatory practices by police have served as rallying cries throughout the protests that followed Brown's death. Ferguson Township Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Bynes said the DOJ's acknowledgement of the wrongs is essential.

“People are not out here making this stuff up or lying about their interactions with the police” she said. “And giving validation to this community, knowing that their concerns are being heard, that is very important.”  

Many are eager to see what this report actually means: what types of changes the DOJ will recommend and implement? Alexis Templeton of Millennial Activist United said until changes are actually made, it’s only a partial victory for activists.

“Even if the DOJ has told Ferguson, 'Either you comply or we go to court,' what does complying mean? What things have to change? Who is going to lose their job? Who is going to be brought on? There are tons of questions that still need to be answered,” Templeton said

Templeton said it’s also only a partial victory because it only directly acknowledges the policing issues in Ferguson. She said she hopes that because the world’s eyes are on Ferguson, it can serve as an example to other police departments.