Ferguson Lawsuit Shines a Light on a National Problem
Hefty fines for un-mowed grass. Warrantless stops and searches. Petty citations doled out when no crimes were committed. These are just a few of the accusations lobbed at the Ferguson, Missouri. police department in a complaint filed by the Department of Justice on Wednesday. Despite broad pressure, changing the department and its culture, from petty missteps to lethal violence against unarmed black teens, appeared to reach an impasse this week.
After months of negotiation with the Department of Justice, it seemed as if embattled officials in Ferguson were finally ready to make meaningful changes to the city’s police department and court system. Yet on Monday night, the city council backtracked, voting to amend parts of a hard-fought consent agreement, promptly resulting in a civil rights lawsuit from federal officials. The 56-page complaint against the city’s attempt to backpedal offers a painful and by now familiar laundry list of grievances.
“As our report made clear, the residents of Ferguson have suffered the deprivation of their constitutional rights—the rights guaranteed to all Americans—for decades,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch in a statement on Wednesday announcing the lawsuit. “They have waited decades for justice. They should not be forced to wait any longer.”
The lawsuit’s allegations echo those found in the Department of Justice’s Ferguson reports released last March and July, describing a lawless police department that routinely violates the rights of residents and relies on petty fines and fees to line its pockets, cementing a deep rift between law enforcement and citizens. The problematic practices disproportionately target black residents, according to the complaint. While recounting numerous painful and disturbing encounters, the lawsuit is also a reminder that these issues plague cities nationwide.
“Ferguson is emblematic of hundreds of cities,” former Boston police officer and criminal law professor Tom Nolan told TakePart. “Similarly situated cities that lack a property tax base or other revenue-generating source to sustain public services like police departments resort to a fine system that is wholly incompatible with community policing.”
The Justice Department’s most recent legal complaint describes dozens of such encounters in which citizens were questionably stopped, arrested, detained, or ticketed for minor violations, incurring debt to the city’s coffers.
In a July 2013 incident narrated in the complaint, officers “encountered an African American man in a parking lot while on their way to arrest someone else at an apartment building.” Though the officers were aware this man was not the suspect they were looking for, they handcuffed him without reasonable suspicion and detained him in a police car. He turned out to be the suspect’s landlord. When the man filed a complaint contesting his unlawful detention and claiming racial discrimination, a police sergeant defended the officers’ actions, “noting the detention as ‘minimal’ and that the car was air conditioned.”
In a separate incident, a black woman called the police department to report domestic abuse. According to the brief, when the police arrived, the woman’s alleged abuser, her boyfriend, had left. After learning that her boyfriend was living with her but that only her name and her brother’s name were on the occupancy permit, “the officer placed the woman under arrest for the permit violation and she was jailed.” A similar domestic disturbance resulted in the arrest of another victim for an occupancy permit violation. She told the officers after her detention that “she hated the Ferguson Police Department and will never call again, even if she is being killed,” according to the complaint.
Charges for minor violations collected by the Ferguson municipal court pose serious financial challenge for indigent residents. In at least one instance, the court charged $531 for a “high grass and weeds” violation; $777 for resisting arrest; and $302 for a “manner of walking” violation, which can include jaywalking.
“The powder keg that was ignited with the death of Michael Brown owed in large part to the decades of these kinds of law enforcement strategist which exist basically to extract as much money as possible from citizens,” said Nolan.
One of the chief complaints of the Ferguson city council about the consent decree is the requirement that the city increase the salaries of police officers. Local officials say it could cost the city as much as $3.7 million per year to meet the terms of the agreement over the next three to five years, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Yet the increase in officer salaries could be key to attracting higher-caliber officers to a town that badly needs them, according to Nolan.
“City officials in Ferguson are faced with the reality of having to fund police operational expenses with revenue that doesn’t exist,” he said. “I don’t think that they’re being underhanded or duplicitous, but what happens when police officers are paid poorly is that the recruit selection process will garner people who will do this work for very little money. You’re not going to attract the best candidates.”
The police department is currently managed by interim chief Alan Eickhoff. A search for a permanent chief is ongoing. The previous interim chief, Andre Anderson, resigned in December 2015, while the police chief Thomas Jackson resigned after the Department of Justice published its initial searing report in March.
Correction Feb. 16, 2016: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the current interim police chief. Andre Anderson, who served as interim chief before Alan Eickhoff, resigned in December 2015.