March 4, 2015

It's difficult to reconcile the Department of Justice's scathing report on Ferguson police and courts with their determination that no evidence exists to charge Darren Wilson with civil rights violations.

The report is so breathtaking in its scope and conclusions about the culture of Ferguson's "law enforcement agencies" that it's hard to imagine the culture not affecting Michael Brown's civil rights.

This report shows Ferguson PD (and thousands of cities just like Ferguson) to be a mass of racism and corruption, focused on extorting residents rather than keeping the community safe. Indeed, Ferguson police functioned as collection agents for the city, who used fines to beef up revenue shortfalls, while making it nearly impossible for anyone who was fined to actually pay the fine and get out from under the ongoing penalty of an outstanding violation.

City, police, and court officials for years have worked in concert to maximize revenue at every stage of the enforcement process, beginning with how fines and fine enforcement processes are established. In a February 2011 report requested by the City Council at a Financial Planning Session and drafted by Ferguson’s Finance Director with contributions from Chief Jackson, the Finance Director reported on “efforts to increase efficiencies and maximize collection” by the municipal court. The report included an extensive comparison of Ferguson’s fines to those of surrounding municipalities and noted with approval that Ferguson’s fines are “at or near the top of the list.” The chart noted, for example, that while other municipalities’ parking fines generally range from $5 to $100, Ferguson’s is $102. The chart noted also that the charge for “Weeds/Tall Grass” was as little as $5 in one city but, in Ferguson, it ranged from $77 to $102. The report stated that the acting prosecutor had reviewed the City’s “high volume offenses” and “started recommending higher fines on these cases, and recommending probation only infrequently.” While the report stated that this recommendation was because of a “large volume of non-compliance,” the recommendation was in fact emphasized as one of several ways that the code enforcement system had been honed to produce more revenue.

After all, the good people of Missouri can't tax people to raise those revenues, right? So instead they targeted those least able to fight back -- Workers, teenagers, single moms, and others living on the edge of poverty.

So instead they planned ways to hike fines and then make it difficult for those fines to be paid, which led to arrest warrants and more fines, which led to arrests and even more fines.

However, the notion of "personal responsibility" is one that is selectively applied in Ferguson.

On page 77 of the report, they note that most officials and lawmakers in Ferguson consider the problem to be a lack of personal responsibility on the part of African-Americans, even though the facts do not bear that conclusion out.

Worse, there's a huge double standard about how standards of personal responsibility are applied.

The common practice among Ferguson officials of writing off tickets further evidences a double standard grounded in racial stereotyping. Even as Ferguson City officials maintain the harmful stereotype that black individuals lack personal responsibility—and continue to cite this lack of personal responsibility as the cause of the disparate impact of Ferguson’s practices—white City officials condone a striking lack of personal responsibility among themselves and their friends. Court records and emails show City officials, including the Municipal Judge, the Court Clerk, and FPD supervisors assisting friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and themselves in eliminating citations, fines, and fees. For example:

  • In August 2014, the Court Clerk emailed Municipal Judge Brockmeyer a copy of a Failure to Appear notice for a speeding violation issued by the City of Breckenridge, and asked: “[FPD patrol supervisor] came to me this morning, could you please take [care] of this for him in Breckenridge?” The Judge replied: “Sure.” Judge Brockmeyer also serves as Municipal Judge in Breckenridge.
  • In October 2013, Judge Brockmeyer sent Ferguson’s Prosecuting Attorney an email with the subject line “City of Hazelwood vs. Ronald Brockmeyer.” The Judge wrote: “Pursuant to our conversation, attached please find the red light camera ticket received by the undersigned. I would appreciate it if you would please see to it that this ticket is dismissed.” The Prosecuting Attorney, who also serves as prosecuting attorney in Hazelwood, responded: “I worked on red light matters today and dismissed the ticket that you sent over. Since I entered that into the system today, you may or may not get a second notice – you can just ignore that.”

The entire report is just scathing. While the conclusion expresses optimism that the Ferguson PD and Municipal Court can be cleaned up and changed, I'm not nearly as optimistic. I believe that culture is so baked into the Ferguson PD from top to bottom that the only way to change it would be to purge most of their police officers and most certainly their police chief and judge who oversees the fine collection process. That judge, by the way, is Judge Ronald Brockmeyer, mentioned in the example of double standards above.

This is a problem much larger than Ferguson. I'm sure an investigation of many police departments all over this country would yield similar results. But it is a beginning, and it should empower people suffering at the hands of an inherently racist and corrupt system to stand up and refuse to be bullied by these people anymore. If it takes a DOJ investigation of every single one of them, so be it.

Update: The Ferguson Mayor's response to this report was completely inadequate and ridiculous. The correct response was to first demand the Police Chief's resignation before submitting his own. Instead, he thought it would placate everyone to say that one of the people who sent racist emails was terminated and they would create a Citizen Oversight Commission. Oh, and they hired some extra court clerks, too. And they went through diversity training.

That's not even close to being enough. This is a place infected with racist thoughts and actions and it happened while Knowles and his pal Jackson were in charge. Heads should roll.

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