The Three Things That Ferguson’s Elections Need to Fix
Tuesday marks an election day in Ferguson, Mo., where thousands of voters are expected to hit the polls and choose a new local government—maybe even one that actually represents the city's racial identity. It’s a decidedly municipal affair that’s drawing national attention since it comes more than six months after unarmed teen Mike Brown was shot and killed, turning the St. Louis suburb into a national symbol of racial inequity. The elections also come a month after the Department of Justice issued a scathing report about how the city’s local government—ranging from its police force to its municipal courts—routinely violated the civil rights of its black residents.
Some of the most damning indictment's of the city's racial inequality were on display before the report came out: Black residents make up 67 percent of the city’s more than 21,000 residents, but its police force was more than 83 percent white. Additionally, the mayor, James Knowles III, and five of Ferguson's six city council members were also white. While representation alone doesn’t equal deep-rooted political change, many residents and observers hope that it will at least be a start, despite the low turnout that's plaugued recent elections.
Yet once the mayor (who’s not up for re-election) and the city council finally do get settled, they’ll have their work cut out for them. Here are three of the most immediate things that they’ll need to address:
Those Horribly Racist Emails:
Part of what the DOJ uncovered were several blatantly racist emails shared by city employees, many of which were just released to the media this week. One features a photo of former President Ronald Reagan feeding milk to a chimpanzee above a caption that reads, “Rare photo of Ronald Reagan babysitting Barack Obama in early 1962.”
While the photos were egregious examples of poor taste, they were also instructive looks at the personal bias that some city employees had for Ferguson’s black residents. Notably, the report found that the email exchanges involved supervisors in Ferguson’s Police Department, and concluded: “The racial animus and stereotypes expressed by these supervisors suggest that they are unlikely to hold an officer accountable for discriminatory conduct or to take any steps to discourage the development of perpetuation of racial stereotypes among officers.”
A Deep Mistrust of Police Officers:
Perhaps the most telling finding of the DOJ’s report was the high price that Ferguson’s black residents paid for, quite frankly, being black. The DOJ found that they were overrepresented in every category of law enforcement: they accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of police citations, and 93 percent of arrests from 2012 to 2014. All of those stops, tickets and fines generated millions of dollars in revenue over the years. Of the more than $11 million of the city’s general revenue in 2010, $1.38 million came from fines and fees collected by the court. By 2014, the city expected the court to collect $2.4 million.
The Pervasive Use of Excessive Force
Former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson’s shooting of Brown ignited a national conversation about police brutality and excessive force used by officers. Though Wilson’s actions were deemed permissible by a St. Louis grand jury and the federal government, the fact that he died after an interaction with a police officer put him squarely on a long list of black men who’ve died at the hands of police. Between 1968 and 2011, black people were between two to eight times more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than whites, according to a the Centers for Disease Control. While the report did not explicitly talk about Brown’s death, it did put it into a context of ongoing and systemic force used by officers. The report called the department’s reliance on tasers, even against its on policies, “unreasonable” and that officers “seem to regard [them] as an all-purpose tool bearing no risk.” What’s more, the report found that “it is in part FPD officers’ approach to policing that leads them to violate the Constitution and FPD’s own policies.”