Last week saw the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division release what amounts to a valedictory report on policing for the Obama era, detailing findings that Chicago Police Department “officers engage in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, that is unreasonable [and] unnecessarily endanger[s] themselves and others and result[s] in unnecessary and avoidable shootings and other uses of force.” Coupled with the announcement of agreements with Chicago and Baltimore to address the constitutional infirmities in their police departments, the release of this investigation highlights the valuable role the federal government has played in uncovering and addressing abusive policing practices, particularly in marginalized communities.
Since 2009, the Civil Rights Division has investigated twenty-five law enforcement agencies. The most high-profile of these investigations was in Ferguson, Missouri. That investigation revealed a police department and municipal court system so focused on generating revenue that they routinely and flagrantly violated the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and exacerbated racial disparities to the point that almost no member of the city’s African-American community was untouched by the criminal justice system. In fact, ninety-two percent of warrants issued by the Ferguson municipal court were issued for African-Americans, though they make up on sixty-seven percent of the population. They also accounted for eighty-five percent of vehicle stops and ninety-three percent of arrests in Ferguson. Ninety percent of all police use of force was against African-Americans and, in a chilling callback to Civil Rights era imagery, every person bitten by a police dog in Ferguson has been black.