by Thomas Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology and Director of Graduate Programs in Criminology at Merrimack College
The report from the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division on the Ferguson, Mo. Police Department is a damning indictment of an out-of-control, lawless, and racist police department gone rogue. Given the context and history of policing in Ferguson provided in the DOJ investigation, it seemed inevitable that an unarmed African American teenager would be shot dead by a white Ferguson police officer following a confrontation over a “Manner of Walking in Roadway” offense (or theft of cigarillos if that is to be believed). One is tempted to question how it didn’t happen sooner than August 9, 2014.
The Ferguson Police Department (FPD) arrested 460 individuals for outstanding warrants between October 2012 and October 2014: 96 percent of those arrested were African American. According to the DOJ report, from 2011 to 2013, African Americans accounted for 95 percent of Manner of Walking in Roadway charges, 94 percent of Failure to Comply charges, 92 percent of Resisting Arrest charges, 92 percent of Peace Disturbance charges, and 89 percent of Failure to Obey charges. “Despite making up 67 percent of the population, African Americans accounted for 85 percent of FPD’s traffic stops, 90 percent of FPD’s citations, and 93 percent of FPD’s arrests from 2012 to 2014.” The race-based enforcement tactics and strategies employed by the FPD have a disparate impact on African Americans that is violative of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The DOJ report also found that the FPD has engaged in a “pattern and practice of constitutional violations (that primarily target African Americans) in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force.” The FPD’s policies and practices were found to routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in racially profiling African Americans and disproportionally singling them out for “pedestrian checks,” “Failure to Comply,” and illegal “Stop and Identify” offenses. DOJ found that the FPD consistently uses excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment and that African Americans accounted for almost 90 percent of the use of force incidents from 2010 to 2014. FPD used force involving a canine bite 14 times during this time period and in all incidents the person bitten was African American.
The FPD also engages in a standard (and unlawful) practice of arresting individuals for engaging in activities that are protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution: “people are punished for talking back to officers, recording public police activities, and lawfully protesting perceived injustices.”