U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called Wednesday for “immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action” in Ferguson, Missouri, as he detailed the findings of an exhaustive Justice Department investigation into official misconduct and racial discrimination by police officers against residents in the two-thirds African-American St. Louis suburb. A 100-page report of the investigation includes searing accounts of racism among police and city officials, who deliberately targeted minority residents to rack up fines and doled out jail time for those who didn’t or couldn’t pay the fees.
National law enforcement organizations, lawmakers and civil rights leaders said they were watching how Ferguson officials responded to the report and whether police departments with similar issues around the country take heed of the Justice Department’s damning assessment.
“Amid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices, it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,” Holder said at a Washington news conference, referring to the protests that followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, by then-city police Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. The events, compounded by other police killings of unarmed black people in New York and Ohio last year, sparked a national debate on race and policing reforms. But the Justice Department’s investigation also clears Wilson of violating Brown’s civil rights, as Holder confirmed there was not enough evidence to pursue federal criminal charges.
The shocking effects of the Ferguson practices described in the report -- one African-American man told investigators that a traffic stop for tinted car windows resulted in his arrest and multiple charges that caused him to lose his job -- should put leaders in the nation’s 18,000 local police departments on notice, said Tom Manger, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents chiefs and sheriffs in the largest law enforcement departments in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. “Every police chief in the United States should be paying attention to this report because the conversation and discussion that were started in Ferguson have now spread very quickly,” said Manger, who is also the chief of the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland, bordering Washington, D.C.
“I don’t know any police chief that isn’t having these same conversations about trust issues and about diversity of the police department, compared to the residents that they serve,” Manger continued, adding that he would recommend Ferguson’s police chief, or any law enforcement leader, take such findings seriously and consider that there may be internal problems neglected by departments. “The best thing for police chiefs to do is to not be defensive,” he said.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, in their own news conference Wednesday, called the Justice Department report “instructive” for other police conduct reviews happening around the country. “The far-reaching report represents an important path forward,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., whose district includes Ferguson. “His [Brown's] death has forced our nation to begin a long overdue conversation on race and disparity that it continues to perpetuate for too many Americans.”
Among the report’s many findings of discriminatory practices, African-Americans accounted for an overwhelming majority of police traffic stops, traffic tickets, arrests and use-of-force cases. Civil rights groups, including the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, have called for “an overhaul of the department” in Ferguson and expressed disappointment in the lack of criminal civil rights charges for Wilson. “We will continue to push for legislation and policies that protect the rights of all citizens,” Sharpton said in a statement.