A government report reveals Ferguson, Missouri’s failed system.
The St. Louis suburb of Ferguson has been fixed in the national consciousness since Aug. 9, 2014, when Michael Brown, a young, unarmed African-American, was shot and killed by a white police officer. Protests and civil unrest followed, and Ferguson became a dramatic flash point in the nationwide controversy over police killings of unarmed African-American men. In September 2014, the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice opened an investigation in Ferguson. In March 2015, the division issued two reports. One found no reason to disagree with a grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for shooting Brown; the other, perhaps more significant, report was itself an indictment of the Ferguson Police Department and municipal court. That report is published now in book form, and through its staid, official language, there emerges a story that is part tragedy and part farce. The report concludes that the Ferguson police and court system have one overriding aim: to maximize city revenue through citations and court fees, even at the expense of public safety and community service. The police achieve this by aggressively issuing citations, often through unconstitutional practices, and the court imposes onerous fees and embroils defendants in a massively dysfunctional bureaucracy. The city’s African-American citizens are disproportionally impacted, and the report attributes this in part to racist attitudes among some city leaders, employees, and police. In his introduction, legal scholar Shaw (Law/Univ. of North Carolina) calls the report “comprehensive, objective, factual, and damning,” and of that there is no doubt. But important questions of whether Ferguson is an aberration or why the city was so desperate for revenue are left unexamined.
Few general readers will choose to wade through this lengthy, scathing report, but every American should be familiar with its findings.