The Department of Justice announced Wednesday the findings of its two civil rights investigations related to the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last August. It concluded there is ample evidence the Ferguson Police Department engages in discriminatory policing of the community; however, there is not enough evidence to support federal civil rights charges against Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Brown.
The reports capped off six months of investigations into the shooting death of Brown and the militarized response by Ferguson officials to community protests of Brown’s death.
“Our investigation showed that Ferguson police officers routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force against them,” United States Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement following the release of the reports. “Now that our investigation has reached its conclusion, it is time for Ferguson’s leaders to take immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action.”
The Department of Justice’s pattern or practice investigation focused on the Ferguson Police Department’s overall use of force, including deadly incidents; its stops, searches, and arrests; and its officers’ treatment of detainees inside Ferguson’s city jail. According to the department, its investigators reviewed more than 35,000 pages of police records; interviewed city, police, and court officials; and conducted an analysis of the Ferguson Police Department’s own data.
The department found that Ferguson police disproportionately stopped Black people for no reasonable suspicion, made arrests with no probable cause, and disproportionately used force against Black residents.
In addition, it uncovered evidence of racist emails within the police department. As the department explained, “We discovered emails circulated by police supervisors and court staff that stereotype racial minorities as criminals, including one email that joked about an abortion by an African-American woman being a means of crime control.”
Investigators concluded that racial bias, combined with the city emphasizing revenue generation through enforcement, has resulted in police and court conduct that routinely violates the Constitution and federal law.
“Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs,” the report concluded. “This 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.”
The report includes recommendations to fix the unconstitutional practices plaguing Ferguson police and municipal courts. The recommendations—26 in total—include improving officer training and oversight and ending a reliance on arrest warrants as a means of collecting fines and generating revenue for the municipality.
“While the findings in Ferguson are very serious and the list of needed changes is long, the record of the Civil Rights Division’s work with police departments across the country shows that if the Ferguson Police Department truly commits to community policing, it can restore the trust it has lost,” said Vanita Gupta, acting assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division, in a statement following the release of the reports.
“These findings are intolerable,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, in a statement. “And they are not unique to Ferguson. In cities and towns across the United States, communities of color are under siege by their own police departments, as documented by ACLU affiliates in Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere,” Mittman continued.
“Darren Wilson, a white police officer who stated Mr. Brown looked like a ‘demon,’ shot the unarmed teenager down in the street. And that officer was employed by a department that treated blacks unfairly and circulated racist ‘jokes,’” Mittman added. “Only by looking back honestly at where we’ve been can we find our way towards fair policing.”
The Department of Justice issued a separate report on the question of whether or not to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. It concluded it could not meet the high burden of proof of showing that Wilson’s use of deadly force was “objectively unreasonable.”
“There is no evidence upon which prosecutors can rely to disprove Wilson’s stated subjective belief that he feared for his safety,” the report states.
Michael Brown’s family released a statement in response to the department’s findings.
“Today we received disappointing news from the Department of Justice that the killer of our son wouldn’t be held accountable for his actions,” said Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. “While we are saddened by this decision, we are encouraged that the DOJ 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.”
The Department of Justice criminal investigation into Brown’s shooting sought to determine whether the evidence from the events that led to Brown’s death was sufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Wilson willfully violated Brown’s civil rights when he shot and killed him. To successfully prosecute Wilson, the government would have needed to show that Wilson shot Brown knowing it was wrong and against the law to do so.
The department released the reports after first meeting with Brown’s family members Wednesday morning.