The tragic killing of 18 year-old African-American Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a white police officer happened six months ago, but the acrimony, pain, and public outcry resulting from the death has not gone away.
CNN reports that on Wednesday, March 4th, the U.S. Justice Department released a 102-page report on the Ferguson Police Department. The report’s findings, as well as the decision by the Justice Department to not seek federal civil rights violation charges against Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot Brown, has sparked more outrage over the conduct of the Ferguson Police Department and has fueled an on-going discussion across the country about the role and tactics of police officers, who numbered 780,000 strong in 2012.
Roughly two-thirds of Ferguson residents are African-American, yet according to the report, 85% of traffic stops, 90% of citations, 93% of arrests, and 88% of situations involving the use of force involved African-Americans. The disproportionate amount of police action directed toward that population has raised serious concerns about, among other things, racial profiling and police brutality, and has led the Justice Department to condemn Ferguson police for racist and inappropriate behavior.
Alderman Antonio French of nearby St. Louis said the police department’s tactics amounted to “taxation by citation,” claiming that the arrests affected not only Ferguson residents but also residents in other close-by communities who pass through the town.
However, not all people agree on how to interpret the report’s findings. Bernard Parks, the Los Angeles Chief of Police from 1997 to 2002, is skeptical about the accusations of systematic racism in the department, claiming that “the numbers can be deceiving because the population is overwhelmingly black.”
Parks, who during his tenure as the head of the LAPD witnessed massive Justice Department overhauls, including the prosecution of police officers, because of the “practice of excessive force, false arrests and unreasonable searches and seizures,” believes that the report should be used more as a supplement rather than a condemnation of Ferguson in figuring out “what is really going on in Ferguson and what to do to correct it.”
Joe Hicks, a community activist based in Los Angeles, believes that Attorney General Eric Holder prompted the report to “extract a pound of flesh…from the Ferguson Police Department” out of frustration with his department’s inability to prosecute Wilson as well as George Zimmerman, the Floridian “neighborhood watch” volunteer who shot and killed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012, for federal civil rights violations.
Still, many residents of Ferguson itself confirm the report’s findings based on their day-to-day experiences with the police. Patricia Pendelton, 41, a nurse, claims that although she is not “targeted” by law enforcement because she is an older woman, her three sons, none of them older than 21, face constant police attention for reasons as dubious as “looking suspicious.”
“How does a person look suspicious? What do you have to be wearing to look suspicious?” she proposed before reenacting questions asked by any given police officer. “‘Where you going? What you doing? How you doing it?’ It’s none of your business.”
Another African-American resident, 33-year-old Mike Knox, had a similar story. He said that his young son was once arrested by the police for simply being in the parking lot of an auto parts store with a few friends of his. To add insult to injury, he wasn’t even charged with anything. Knox was so convinced about the police department’s prejudice against African-Americans that he claimed he has been pulled over many times for “DWB,” or “driving while black.”
“They all do it,” he went on to say. “People are just tired of that happening. Why should we get pulled over every time we get in the car?” He tells his four children that police officers aren’t bad but, on the other hand, they should be cautious when dealing with cops.
“‘If you let your attitude take over,’” he warns them, “‘that can be you laying on that ground,’” seemingly referring to the well-publicized images of Michael Brown lying on the street after he had been killed.
It is not just African-American residents who are concerned about police actions. White residents like Tom Steigerwald, 31, claim that the police department has a serious problem.
“They all got a power trip problem, a lot of them,” he said.
After the report was released, Michael Brown’s parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., expressed disappointment with the federal government’s decision to not prosecute the officer who shot their son. They are, however, cautiously optimistic that the report will usher in meaningful change.
“We are encouraged that the DOJ [Department of Justice] will hold the Ferguson Police Department accountable for the pattern of racial bias and profiling they found in their handling of interactions with people of color,” they said in a statement. “It is our hope that through this action, true change will come not only in Ferguson, but around the country. If that change happens, our son’s death will not have been in vain.”