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Justice Department delivers ‘searing’ report on Ferguson's discriminatory practices

Attorney General Eric Holder visited Ferguson Aug. 20.
Office of U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay

The Ferguson police department and municipal court engaged in such a widespread pattern of unconstitutional conduct that it lost the trust of the people, the Justice Department concluded after a seven-month investigation.

Attorney General Eric Holder called the report “searing.” It was full of accounts of blatant police and municipal court abuse of citizens, particularly African-Americans.

The attorney general suggested that the city’s unconstitutional behavior may explain why many citizens were ready to believe unsupported accounts about the deadly confrontation between Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown.

In its 105-page report the Justice Department accused the city of violation of the First Amendment’s right of free speech, the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unjustified stops and searches and the 14th Amendment’s promise of fair and equal justice.

It concluded:

  • Ferguson police often arrested citizens who questioned police actions or tried to record them with cell phones.  The police also arrested protesters without cause.  All this violated the First Amendment.
  • Police stopped pedestrians and motorists without cause and then tried to write as many tickets as they could out of each stop.  This violates the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
  • The city operated its municipal court system to maximize revenue over public safety, with city officials constantly urging the police to maximize fines and productivity.  The result was unfair justice in violation of the 14th Amendment promise of due process and equal protection of law.
  • The brunt of police and court misconduct fell on African-Americans.  All of the police dog bites were in arrests of African-Americans. Ninety-six percent of those arrested for not appearing in court were black. Eighty-eight percent of all cases involving use of force were against black suspects. And blacks were far more likely to be searched than whites even though whites were more likely to be found with contraband.

Samuel Walker, a professor at the University of Nebraska and expert on police accountability, called the report “devastating.”
It was “even more powerful than I had anticipated, particularly with regard to the racist emails, which speak volumes about the culture of the department, and the explicit commitment to use law enforcement for revenue. People from St. Louis have told me that more than a few municipalities do that, but I did not know that it was explicit as the report documents.

“I was also pretty stunned by the open and seemingly routine manner in which whites were given breaks by the courts,” he added.

Ferguson Police Lt. Craig Rettke is confronted by two protestors in the middle of S. Florissant Road Sunday night.
Credit Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson Police Lt. Craig Rettke is confronted by two protesters.

Required reforms

The report laid out 26 steps that the city needs to take to remedy the unconstitutional conduct.  Many of those steps are likely to become part of a consent decree or a court order requiring the Ferguson to end unconstitutional practices.

Half of the steps require police reforms and the other half municipal court reforms. Ferguson is the first Justice Department “pattern or practice” case that requires not only reforms by law enforcement officers but also by court officials.

Among the reforms demanded by the Justice Department are:

  • True community policing where police work together with the community.  Ferguson police had a minimal involvement with the community, the report said.
  • A fundamental change in the way police stop, search and ticket citizens, including an end to the abuse of vague, unconstitutional laws like “failure to comply” with a police order.
  • Meaningful review of the use of force by officers. Currently, police and supervisors almost entirely ignore the procedures for reviewing the use of force. The result is that officers frequently misuse Tasers and pull their pistols without justification.
  • Training for officers in unbiased policing as part of improved training so that officers know the legal rights of citizens.
  • Adoption of meaningful measures for punishing police officers for misconduct.  The report found that supervisors would seldom punish officers for blatant abuses of citizens’ rights.
  • Recruitment of a more diverse police department that increases not only the number of African-American officers but also women.
  • Restoring the legitimacy of the municipal court system by making courts more transparent and providing citizens with more information on how it functions.
  • Ending the use of arrest warrants as a means of collecting fines and fees.
  • Ending the abusive practice of piling new fines on those who don’t show up in court on minor traffic cases.
  • Reducing fines for some violations to the lower levels charged by neighboring municipalities.
  • Fixing bond and fine assessments so people won’t end up in jail when they are unable to pay court fines.
  • Close cases that are based entirely on the failure to appear in court.

More than a thousand demonstrators gather on Canfield Drive on Aug. 30, 2014 as part of a National March on Ferguson.
Credit Emanuele Berry | St. Louis Public Radio
Demonstration in Ferguson in August.

A litany of abuses

The Justice Department report was punctuated by stories of police abuse of citizens, particularly black citizens.  Here are a few:

  • A 32-year-old black man cooling off in his car after playing basketball was confronted by a police officers demanding his Social Security number.  The officer accused the man of being a pedophile because he was parked near a park.  The officer arrested the man at gunpoint for eight violations, including “making a false declaration” for giving his first name as Mike instead of Michael.  The man said he lost his job as a contractor for the federal government because of the charges.
  • An African-American woman is still paying fines that resulted from a 2007 incident when she parked her car illegally. The initial fine was high, $151, and she couldn’t afford it.  Additional fees were piled on top for failing to appear in court.  Now, after having paid $550 she still owes $541.
  • Police rounded up a group of six black youths in response to a report that one suspect was selling drugs.  In other words, there was no reason to stop the group of six as part of an investigation of a lone drug seller.
  • Police ordered two teen girls who got into an altercation to go to their homes and not come out.  When the girls got into another dispute later in the day, police arrested them for failing to comply with the order, even though they had no right to order the girls to stay in their homes.
  • Officers who were supposed to pick up one man at the police station stopped another by mistake and demanded identification.  When the man extended his identification toward the officers, the officers said it was an assault and locked him up for failure to comply and resisting arrest.
  • In July, 2012 police arrested a business owner who objected to a Ferguson officer’s decision to stop her employee near the store. The officer stopped the employee for “walking unsafely in the street” as he returned to work from the bank. When the business owner came out of her shop three times to protest the stop, the officer arrested her for interfering with an arrest. That violated the business owner’s First Amendment rights, the report said.
  • In September 2012, an officer stopped a 20-year-old African-American man for dancing in the middle of a residential street. The officer checked the man for warrants and told him he could go.  The man responded with profanities and ended up arrested for “Manner of Walking in Roadway.”
  • In June 2014 an African-American couple ended up in jail after allowing their child to urinate in the bushes near a playground.  An officer threatened to cite them for allowing their children to expose themselves. The mother then began recording the officer on her cellphone and he became irate, declaring, “you don’t videotape me!”  Both ended up getting arrested. The same officer arrested the driver of a truck who didn’t respond quickly enough to a command that he put his cellphone on the dashboard because it was a threat. The charge was failure to comply.
  • On Feb. 9, 2015, police arrested several people protesting outside the Ferguson police station on the six-month anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. Video shows the protest was peaceful, but two Ferguson police cards sped up to the scene an officer announced, “everybody here’s going to jail.”
  • More than 20 officers used force to break up a disturbance at a high school, but their cursory use of force report didn’t name the officers involved or explain the justification.

Police line the sidewalk in front of the Justice Center in Clayton Wednesday morning. 82014
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
Police line the sidewalk in front of the Justice Center.

Municipal courts

The report contained a devastating criticism of the municipal courts.  It criticized city officials for putting pressure on the police to raise more money from traffic stops, and it sharply criticized Judge Ronald Brockmeyer for irregular practices.

The report said, “City officials routinely urge Chief (Thomas) Jackson to generate more revenue through enforcement. In March 2010, for instance, the city finance director wrote to Chief Jackson that ‘unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. ... Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.’”

Then, in March 2013, the finance director wrote to the city manager: “Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5 percent. I did ask the chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10 percent increase. He indicated they could try.”

The pressure from above translated to officers on the street who were expected to keep up productivity, in other words traffic and ordinance violations that would result in revenue for the city.

The report said: “Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on ‘productivity,’ meaning the number of citations issued. Partly as a consequence of city and (police) priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African- American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”

Brockmeyer suggested the creation of additional court fees, “many of which are widely considered abusive and may be unlawful,” the report said.

The judge’s performance was criticized by other city officials, but he held onto the job because he was a money maker.

“The city manager acknowledged mixed reviews of the judge’s work,” the report said, “but urged that the judge be reappointed, noting that ‘[i]t goes without saying the city cannot afford to lose any efficiency in our courts, nor experience any decrease in our fines and forfeitures.’”

At times Brockmeyer went so far as to order a defendant locked up for refusing to answer questions, the report said.

The court was tough on African-Americans, but not on court employees of nearby municipal courts.

“It is clear that writing off tickets between the Ferguson court staff and the clerks of other municipal courts in the region is routine,” the report said. “Email exchanges show that Ferguson officials secured or received ticket write-offs from staff in a number of neighboring municipalities."

For example, Brockmeyer got one of his own red-light tickets written off.  The report gave this account:

“In October 2013, Judge Brockmeyer sent Ferguson’s prosecuting attorney an email with the subject line ‘City of Hazelwood vs. Ronald Brockmeyer.’ The judge wrote: ‘Pursuant to our conversation, attached please find the red light camera ticket received by the undersigned. I would appreciate it if you would please see to it that this ticket is dismissed.’ “

The prosecuting attorney also was prosecutor in Hazelwood and responded agreeably. “I worked on red light matters today and dismissed the ticket that you sent over.”

The report concluded this ticket fixing was another example of racial bias.  “City officials’ application of the stereotype that African Americans lack ‘personal responsibility’ to explain why Ferguson’s practices harm African Americans, even as these same City officials exhibit a lack of personal — and professional— responsibility in handling their own and their friends’ code violations, is further evidence of discriminatory bias on the part of decision makers central to the direction of law enforcement in Ferguson.”

Holder emphasized that the Justice Department would seek to extend reform of the municipal justice system to “surrounding municipalities.”  He said “surrounding municipalities” twice.

But there is nothing tangible in the Justice Department report about how it would bring in the other north county municipalities, which experts say are worse than Ferguson.

This is one of the concerns about the Justice Department action that has been voiced by Thomas Harvey, head of ArchCity Defenders, which brought the municipal court abuses to light.

“I have no idea what they intend to do,” Harvey said Wednesday after seeing the report. “We're going to keep litigating the matter in all of the towns where we have plaintiffs.”

Originally published March 4, 2015, and updated to reflect "St. Louis on the Air" discussion.

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William H. Freivogel is a professor in the Southern Illinois University's School of Journalism, a contributor to St. Louis Public Radio and publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review.