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8 lies exposed by the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report
Internal data showed local police had only used police dogs on black citizens.
One of the favorite chants of Ferguson, Mo., protesters has been “Indict! Convict! Send that killer cop to jail! The whole damn system is guilty as hell!” The report released by the Justice Department on March 4 validates the anger which Ferguson residents have been expressing for months, if not years. By providing hard data and evidence of “systematic discrimination” from the highest U.S. law enforcement department, it proves that Ferguson police poured the gasoline, and Darren Wilson lit the spark.
With this new information coming to light, looking back on the months of fervor in Ferguson, a few things just don’t look right. Here’s a list of quotes made by Ferguson officials that just don’t hold up to the truth test.
1) “There is not a racial divide in the city of Ferguson.”
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles was either asleep on the job or just plain lying when he told reporters that he was “shocked and surprised” that residents felt there was any racial split in their city. But it’s hard to argue with hard evidence.
The Justice Department investigated the Ferguson Police Department and found that “Ferguson’s own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans.” Statistics from traffic stops showed that 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of tickets, and 93 percent of arrests targeted African Americans. Nine out of 10 instances of excessive force were against a black person. African Americans were more than twice as likely to be searched during vehicle stops but were found in possession of contraband 26 percent less often than white drivers.
The report also noted that Ferguson Police regularly used force where no force was necessary. Internal numbers showed the police had never set dogs on a white person; every instance where police dogs were used was against black people.
Though he later came back to reality and recanted the statement, Ferguson’s mayor must have been blind to not notice the egregious racism going on under his nose.
2) “There is not a racial problem in the police department.”
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson told CBS as late as February 2015 that he didn’t think there was any problem in his police department. “I challenge that anyone was harassed. Racial profiling is not only prohibited, it’s illegal,” Jackson said.
Chief Jackson must have been completely unaware of incidents that took place under his watch that the DOJ had no trouble finding. During one routine stop that escalated to an officer threatening arrest, one Ferguson resident told Justice Department investigators, “You don’t have a reason to lock me up,” to which he claims the officer responded: “N*****, I can find something to lock you up on.” The office proceeded to slam the man’s face into a wall and then arrest him.
In one particularly egregious case, a Ferguson patrol sergeant stopped an African-American man on the street after he’d spoken to someone passing by in a truck. When the man refused to consent to a search—a right protected by the Fourth Amendment—the sergeant pulled out his Taser and shocked the man. After he fell to the ground, the police officer then tased him again for over 20 seconds. Dashcam video later showed that the sergeant falsified the arrest report, charging the man with resisting arrest, but no other charge.
“The officers have been under a lot of pressure since August,” Chief Jackson told CBS in February 2015. “They’ve taken a lot of abuse; they’ve been assaulted quite a bit. It’s taken its toll on them.” It seems like Ferguson’s police problems aren’t going to improve as long as its chief fails to recognize the abuses and assaults that have been taking a toll on the people there.
3) “The city of Ferguson has been a model for the region.”
Ferguson is a black town where whites have all the power. Even though whites represent only 29 percent of the city’s residents, six of the seven top city officials are white, as is 90 percent of the city’s school board. Metropolitan Saint Louis remains one of the most segregated cities in America, according to a study conducted by the St. Louis Beacon.
4) “Diversity has always been a priority.”
One of the only times Ferguson Police disciplined a cop for excessive use of force was when one of its three black officers hit a young white college student with his club.
5) “We want everybody to be able to freely protest as long as they want.”
Chief Jackson told reporters at an August press conference that police would be taking special care to ensure everyone’s right to protest, even as they were being widely condemned by the media for their militarized response. Freedom of speech in Ferguson apparently comes with the caveat of police pointing sniper rifles at protestors.
But two months later, a federal judge ruled Ferguson’s policing of the protesters by arresting them if they stood still to be unconstitutional. So much for protecting the First Amendment.
6) “Outside agitators are coming in to stir up violence.”
When riots broke out in the days immediately following the shooting, Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson told CNN that Ferguson residents couldn’t possibly have been disgruntled enough break out in revolt and that it must have been “outsiders” who descended on the innocent town just to create mayhem for its good policemen. But the DOJ report refuted that claim directly: “Our investigation has shown that distrust of the Ferguson Police Department is longstanding and largely attributable to Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement.”
The facts of the report say that police there regularly targeted its own black residents, while levying oppressive fines and fees to pad the city’s budget. “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs,” the report stated. “City officials routinely urge Chief Jackson to generate more revenue through enforcement.” Black residents are slapped disproportionately with fines up to $102 issued by police for minor infractions like having weeds or tall grass in a front yard, and these fines at one point accounted for 23 percent of the public budget.
7) “Today’s report allows the city of Ferguson to identify problems not only in our police department, but in the entire St. Louis region.”
While the DOJ’s report may have put these issues in the national spotlight, Ferguson officials have known about them for years. Much of the information contained in the Justice Department’s report is not new. Annual data on police traffic stops from the Missouri Attorney General showed many of the same conclusions dating back to at least 2001. There’s just no way that police officers happened to simply not notice that 90 percent of the people they arrested during traffic stops happened to be black. African Americans were stopped more, searched more, and even though whites who were searched consistently more often had drugs—and it happened “month after month, year after year.“
8) “This type of behavior will not be tolerated in the Ferguson Police Department or any other department.”
Mayor Knowles told reporters at a press conference following the release of the Justice Department’s report: “We must do better not only as a city, but as a state, and as a country. We must all work to address issues of racial disparity in all aspects of society.”
But while Ferguson’s mayor may be promising change, the police force hasn’t learned much yet. Protests that broke out at news of the reports last week were met with the same heavy-handed response Ferguson Police have become notorious for.
The responses have been inadequate, as they have been all along. One police employee was fired after his racist emails were found by the DOJ. Two officers were placed on paid administrative leave, just as Darren Wilson was when he killed an unarmed man. But nobody thought they should be penalized at the time when they were sending out racist jokes over official email? Ferguson officials may be putting on a serious face now that the nation is watching, but the fact is that they have been tolerating this behavior for years.
It remains to be seen how, if at all possible, Ferguson can remedy its poisonous past and make real changes to fix its deep-seated problems. One thing is for sure, though: Things aren’t going to change if the city keeps the same police officers around who have now been proven by incontrovertible evidence to have engaged in routine, systematic discrimination. It’s high time that Ferguson police face judgment for their actions and, according to Attorney General Eric Holder, even razing the Department to the ground isn’t out of the question.
Photo via DonkeyHotey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Shawn Carrié is an Istanbul-based Middle East correspondent with a focus on human rights and conflict. Since 2014, he has covered the war in Syria, Turkish politics, and more for the Intercept, Yahoo News, Vice, CJR, and Newsweek.