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AG Eric Holder: Ferguson 'Under Assault and Under Siege' by Cops

Image: AG Eric Holder: Ferguson 'Under Assault and Under Siege' by Cops
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Wednesday, 04 Mar 2015 04:35 PM

The police in Ferguson, Missouri, routinely targeted black residents for questioning, search and arrest, the Justice Department concluded, though there’s not enough evidence to bring civil-rights charges against the officer who killed an unarmed black teenager.

The police department’s practices, as well as those of the municipal court, amounted to an unconstitutional pattern that violated the rights of citizens in the predominantly black St. Louis suburb, according to a Justice Department report. The disparities based on race “existed in nearly every aspect of Ferguson police and court operations,” the report said.

Still, the incident that sparked the investigation, the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, didn’t constitute a civil-rights violation by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, the Justice Department concluded in a separate inquiry.

The probe of the police department “found a community that was deeply polarized, and where deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents,” Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday at the Justice Department in Washington. “People feel under assault and under siege by those who are charged to serve and protect them.”

The Justice Department now is in talks with city officials about enacting the 26 recommendations made in the report, and U.S. officials said they’re optimistic that changes can be made to repair relations in the community.

The shooting of Brown on Aug. 9 and several other incidents around the U.S., including the choking death of a black man at the hands of a white New York City police officer, sparked widespread protests that highlighted racial divisions in the U.S. and distrust between police and the communities they serve.

Brown’s parents said they were disappointed by the Justice Department’s decision not to prosecute Wilson, who shot their son during an altercation on a Ferguson street. They were informed of the decision Wednesday by Justice Department representatives during a meeting in Missouri.

“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,” Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. said in a statement. “It is our hope that through this action, true change will come not only in Ferguson, but around the country.”

The 100-page report on the broader patterns and practices of the 53-member Ferguson police force includes recommendations to correct unconstitutional practices by officers and employees of the city’s municipal court. The recommendations range from changing court and police procedures to emphasize public safety, reducing a focus on generating revenue, and improving training and practices to reduce racial bias.

Two Justice Department lawyers met yesterday with Ferguson leaders to discuss the findings and recommendations.

Justice Department officials characterized the meeting as productive and said that the Ferguson officials, including the city’s mayor and police chief, seemed genuinely interested in enacting changes. The officials, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said that Ferguson has already taken some steps to address the issues.

There was no deadline to reach a settlement. If an agreement can’t be reached, the Justice Department can file a federal lawsuit seeking to force changes.

In the past six years, the officials said, the department has opened 20 investigations of police departments and entered 15 such settlement agreements.

Holder, the nation’s first black attorney general and the administration’s most vocal spokesman on racial matters and voting rights, waded deeply into the disputes over the shooting and its aftermath, personally visiting Ferguson to quell tensions while promising a thorough investigation of the shooting.

He had pledged to issue the two reports before he stepped down as attorney general. President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace him, Loretta Lynch, could receive a confirmation vote in the Senate as soon as next week.

Lynch, who would be the first black female attorney general, will not alter the trajectory of the settlement discussions, Justice Department officials said.

The Justice Department’s lengthy Ferguson report found that the city’s problems stemmed from a focus on generating revenue by issuing large numbers of citations for minor violations and issuing arrest warrants for those who failed to pay fines or appear in court. Deep-seated racial biases, which were partially revealed in insensitive emails, helped fuel the improper conduct that fell heavily on blacks, the report said.

Among the pieces of evidence uncovered by the Justice Department were racially charged e-mails from “a number of public servants expressing racist comments or gender discrimination,” Holder said.

One “depicted President Barack Obama as a chimpanzee,” the report said. Another e-mail by a Ferguson employee included a photo of bare-chested women dancing, apparently in Africa, with this caption: “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.”

The report said that such biases fueled police actions that discriminated against blacks. Statistics showed that blacks accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of citations and 93 percent of arrests. African Americans account for 67 percent of the city’s population.

Justice Department officials said they conducted statistical analysis that concluded no factor besides race was responsible for the disparities.

In their investigation into the Aug. 9 shooting, federal prosecutors concluded that Wilson’s actions were objectively reasonable and did not constitute a prosecutable violation of a civil-rights statute, a separate 86-page report found.

Prosecutors and federal agents, who reviewed ballistics and autopsy reports and conducted scores of interviews of eyewitnesses, found no evidence that could “disprove Wilson’s stated objective belief that he feared for his safety,” according to the report.

The mayor of Ferguson said the city has fired one police department employee and put two others on leave after the Justice Department probe identified them as having explicit racial bias in city emails.

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The police in Ferguson, Missouri, routinely targeted black residents for questioning, search and arrest, the Justice Department concluded, though there's not enough evidence to bring civil-rights charges against the officer who killed an unarmed black teenager.The police...
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Wednesday, 04 Mar 2015 04:35 PM
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