Justice Department finds racial bias in Ferguson police practices

Justice Department finds racial bias in Ferguson police practices
Demonstrators protest to demand justice for the death of Eric Garner, at Grand Central Terminal in the Manhattan borough of New York, December 9, 2014.

WASHINGTON - The US Justice Department has concluded that the Ferguson, Missouri, police department routinely engages in racially biased practices, a law enforcement official familiar with the department's findings said on Tuesday.

The investigation into the police department began in August after the shooting of unarmed African-American teen Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson sparked national protests.

Analysis of more than 35,000 pages of police records found racist comments from officers as well as statistics that showed African-Americans make up 93 per cent of arrests while accounting for only 67 per cent of the population in Ferguson, the official said.

African-Americans also made up most of incidents in which officers used force and all incidents where police dogs bit citizens, said the official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of the investigation.

Nationwide protests of police actions that resulted in deaths of African Americans in Ferguson, New York and Cleveland laid bare racial tensions and what President Barack Obama called "simmering distrust" between police and communities.

The findings are expected to be formally released as early as Wednesday, a Justice Department spokeswoman said. The department will use the findings to negotiate policy changes with Ferguson officials and enter a consent decree, or to sue the city to force change.

Previous federal investigations into police departments have resulted in such changes as reporting arrest data to the Justice Department and installing federal monitors to oversee operations.

The report's findings vindicate critics who have cited a pattern of abuse in Ferguson. But they are unlikely to restore full trust in the Ferguson police by citizens who were angered when a grand jury decided not to indict Brown's killer, officer Darren Wilson. Wilson, who said he acted in self-defence, is also unlikely to face criminal charges in a separate Justice Department investigation.

Mayor James Knowles said Ferguson was committed to making improvements.

"The city has always been committed to making sure we have the very best police department and any training and improvements or reforms we make to help improve service to the community, we are interested in," Knowles said.

Civil rights attorney Jerryl Christmas, who has represented people who have clashed with Ferguson police and city officials, said he was not surprised by the findings, and he hopes to see Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson fired.

"We already knew all this was going on. The problem is nobody is being prosecuted, nobody has been terminated," Christmas said.

Jackson did not respond to a request for comment.

One email sent by a Ferguson police or municipal court official joked in 2008 that Obama would not stay in office long because, "What black man holds a steady job for four years?"

Ferguson Committeewoman Patricia Bynes said she was outraged by that and other racially tinged emails found in the investigation.

"The fact that police officers and municipal court officials are using their public emails to tell racial jokes, that just reeks of arrogance and ignorance," said Bynes. "It's astounding. They think they are untouchable. The taxpayers have been paying for that racial bias."

The official said that in Ferguson's court system, African-Americans were less likely to have their cases dismissed by a municipal judge and made up 95 per cent of people held longer than two days in the Ferguson jail.

The Ferguson Municipal Court, which Attorney General Eric Holder has previously criticised for unfairly penalizing the city's poor, issued the majority of its warrants for minor violations such as parking, traffic and housing code violations.



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