I am stealing a page from Slate’s Joshua Keating, who has a series of stories about events in the United States written as if they happened elsewhere and were reported by U.S. media. In doing so, the hope is to both think about how we see ourselves and the world around us when considering events that take place.
Washington, D.C. — A damning report reveals the systemic abuses carried out by security forces in the central United States. An investigation carried out by the federal government’s Department of Justice in Ferguson, a town 12 miles northwest of the major city Saint Louis in Missouri state, said citizens were unlawfully detained and forced to pay excessive fines as a part of a scheme to extract money for the city government.
Nongovernment organizations and rights groups condemned the practice carried out in Ferguson. The U.S. government says it is prepared to step in and take control of the security problem if Ferguson if it is necessary.
“We are prepared to use all the powers that we have, all the power that we have to ensure that the situation changes there and that means everything from working with them to you know coming up with an entirely new structure,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to the media.
The findings are the result of an extensive investigation by the DOJ into the conduct of Ferguson Police Department after the controversial killing of a young black man by an officer. People living in Ferguson erupted in protest over the incident and sparked a movement that spread across the United States. Even professional athletes in the National Football League and the National Basketball Association showed their support by posing with their hands in the air – an act in reference to the reported stance the young man took before being shot dead.
The officer was not tried by local courts. The DOJ report confirmed that the officer did not commit any civil rights violations in carrying out the shooting. But it uncovered deeper, systemic problems within the local police department. The majority white ethnic group used its power to target minority ethnic blacks in Ferguson, said the report. Bias against minority groups were evidenced in email exchanges that mocked black Americans, including U.S. President Obama, leader of the ruling Democrat party.
Members of the local police department were encouraged to bring in money with no regard to how it was done. This policy led local officers to escalate routine or unnecessary stops into higher charges against Ferguson citizens. In one instance, a man was stopped for talking to an individual sitting in a truck. As the report found:
When the man declined to answer questions or submit to a frisk – which the sergeant sought to execute despite articulating no reason to believe the man was armed – the sergeant grabbed the man by the belt, drew his ECW [i.e. taser, AT], and ordered the man to comply. The man crossed his arms and objected that he had not done anything wrong. Video captured by the ECW’s built-in camera shows that the man made no aggressive movement toward the officer. The sergeant fired the ECW, applying a five-second cycle of electricity and causing the man to fall to the ground. The sergeant almost immediately applied the ECW again, which he later justified in his report by claiming that the man tried to stand up. The video makes clear, however, that the man never tried to stand – he only writhed in pain on the ground. The video also shows that the sergeant applied the ECW nearly continuously for 20 seconds, longer than represented in his report. The man was charged with failure to comply and resisting arrest, but no independent criminal violation.
The case was not unique. Another man, sitting in a parked car after playing basketball, was charged with minor offenses by a local police officer after refusing to allow a search of his car. Other instances showed how fines were levied against individuals living in poverty and were used to detain them for periods of time.
The targeting of black minorities was significant. The DOJ found that 93 percent of arrests and 90 percent of fines were issued to blacks. It is a far higher rate than the racial breakdown in the town – 67 percent of the population in Ferguson are black. Despite the evidence, the findings in the report were met with resistance from the Mayor of Ferguson.
“Do they have a statistic that tells me that they’ve examined every arrest that we’ve made for the past four years and that half, or all, or 10 percent, or 5 percent are unconstitutional or without cause? They do not have that. They have not examined at that level that I know of at this point,” said Mayor James Knowles III, in an interview with ThinkProgress.
The overall findings from the report are believed to be a small glimpse into a problem that affects the entire United States. Despite electing its first ever non-white President in 2008, the country still struggles with advantages enjoyed by whites that stem from decades of slavery followed by years of legislated racial discrimination.
“There is no reason to think that Ferguson is unique. The closer we look, the more likely we are to find similarly abhorrent law enforcement systems all across the country,” wrote Brent Staples in the New York Times, a leading newspaper in the United States.