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DOJ: Ferguson Police Acted as Collections Agents, Targeting Blacks

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By Frederick H. Lowe

The Ferguson, Mo., police department, which sparked weeks of violent unrest following a white cop’s shooting death of an unarmed African-American teenager, used their badges to collect revenue for the St. Louis suburb by targeting black residents for illegal fines that violated their constitutional rights, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division wrote in a 102-page report that Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than public-safety issues.

“The emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional  policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community,”  said the report titled “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.”

The DOJ reported that Ferguson budgets for sizeable increases in municipal fines and fees each year.

“City officials routinely urge Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson to generate more revenue through enforcement. In March 2010, for instance, the City Finance Director wrote Jackson that unless ticket writing ramped up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year….Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it is not an insignificant issue.”

In March of 2013, the finance director wrote to the city manager that court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. ” I did ask the police chief if he thought the police department could deliver a 10% increase. He indicated that he would try.”

The DOJ said the city’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect on the Ferguson Police Department’s approach to law enforcement.

“Patrol assignments and schedules are geared  toward aggressive enforcement of Ferguson’s municipal code with insufficient thought given to whether enforcement strategies promote public safety or undermine community trust and cooperation,” the DOJ reported. “Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on productivity, meaning the number of citations issued. Partly as a consequence of city and police department priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected  than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”

The report gave an example of an unidentified 32 year-old black man who was resting in his car after playing basketball at a public park.

A Ferguson cop pulled behind the man’s car and demanded his Social Security number and his identification. The cop accused the man of being a pedophile, referring to the children in a public park.

The cop then ordered the man out of the car for a public pat down, although the police officer had no reason to believe the man was armed.  After patting him down, the cop asked the man if he could search his car.  When the driver objected, citing his constitutional rights, the police officer arrested him at gunpoint and charged the man with eight violations of Ferguson’s municipal code.

One of the charges included making a false declaration. On a short form, the man signed his name as Mike, not Michael. Michael was also charged with not wearing a seat belt, although he was sitting in a parked car. In addition, he was charged with having an expired operator’s license and with having no operator’s license. All of the charges resulted in substantial fines and jail time.

The report noted that cops expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority.

“They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free speech as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence,” DOJ reported. “The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement of free expression, as well as retaliation for violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”

According to the 2010 census, Ferguson’s African-American population was 67%. The Ferguson Police Department has 54 sworn officers and only four are African American, according to the DOJ. Ferguson’s population was 21,111 in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

This is the first of a series articles about the Ferguson Police Department based on the DOJ report.

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