Report from U.S. Justice Department to Fault Ferguson Police

© Whitney Curtis for The New York Times After Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Mo., many black residents protested what they called unfair treatment by the police.
© Whitney Curtis for The New York Times After Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Mo., many black residents protested what they called unfair treatment by the police.

The Justice Department has nearly completed a highly critical report accusing the police in Ferguson, Mo., of making discriminatory traffic stops of African-Americans that created years of racial animosity leading up to an officer’s shooting of a black teenager last summer, law enforcement officials said.

According to several officials who have been briefed on the report’s conclusions, the report criticizes the city for disproportionately ticketing and arresting African-Africans and relying on the fines to balance the city’s budget. The report, which is expected to be released as early as this week, will force Ferguson officials to either negotiate a settlement with the Justice Department or face being sued by it on civil rights charges. Either way, the result is likely to be significant changes inside the Ferguson Police Department, which is at the center of a national debate over race and policing.

Ferguson erupted into angry, sometimes violent protests after a white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in August. The Justice Department investigated that shooting, and officials have said they will clear the officer of civil rights charges. That finding is also expected soon. But the report into the broader practices of the local police department will give the context for the shooting, describing the mounting sense of frustration and anger in a predominantly black city where the police department and local government are mostly white.

While the Justice Department’s exact findings are not yet known, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who is expected to leave office in the next few weeks, and other officials have said publicly that their investigation has focused on the use of excessive force and the treatment of prisoners in local jails as well as the traffic stops.

Blacks accounted for 86 percent of traffic stops in 2013 but make up 63 percent of the population, according to the most recent data published by the Missouri attorney general. And once they were stopped, black drivers were twice as likely to be searched, even though searches of white drivers were more likely to turn up contraband.

For people in Ferguson who cannot afford to pay their tickets, routine traffic stops can become yearslong ordeals, with repeated imprisonments because of mounting fines. Such fines are the city’s second-largest source of revenue after sales tax. Federal investigators say that has provided a financial incentive to continue law enforcement policies that unfairly target African-Americans.

In an unrelated but similar case, the Justice Department recently filed court documents in a lawsuit over whether the city of Clanton, Ala., is running a debtors’ prison. The lawsuit says city officials there keep poor people in jail simply because of their inability to pay fines.

“Because such systems do not account for individual circumstances of the accused, they essentially mandate pretrial detention for anyone who is too poor to pay the predetermined fee,” wrote Vanita Gupta, the top civil rights prosecutor at the Justice Department, who is also supervising the Ferguson inquiry.

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Source: The New York Times | MATT APUZZO

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